Scottish writer James Kelman is not all that well known here in the U.S., but on his home turf he is considered something of an elder statesman. His novel, How Late It Was, How Late, about a man who wakes up blind in a police cell, won the Booker Prize in 1994, and he has collected a passel of other awards, including the Stakis Prize for Scottish Writer of the Year. Kelman is also a playwright, training that shines through the pages of his latest novel, You Have to Be Careful in the Land of the Free. Essentially a 400-page internal monologue, the book reads like a piece of theater, and it is reminiscent of the novels Samuel Beckett wrote before turning full time to plays. Like that fellow Celt, Kelman relies heavily on the rhythm of language and idiomatic expressions to capture a mood that straddles the line between humor and despair.
The narrator of You Have to Be Careful in the Land of the Free is Jeremiah Brown, a 30-something Scot who has been kicking around the United States for 12 years without much to show for it. He has decided he is overdue for a visit home to see his mother, so he has booked a flight and taken a cheap room at a motel "out in the middle of nowhere, miles from the airport and miles from downtown" until his plane leaves the next day. To pass his last night in America, he heads out in search of a drink and ends up at the Shooters and Horses Sports Bar. The bar is playing jazz recordings it's what draws him to the place and the music triggers melancholy thoughts about his ex-girlfriend, a singer named Yasmin, and their baby daughter. Throughout the course of his meandering screed, Jeremiah will continue to obsess about her, each new memory adding details to the puzzle of what went wrong in their relationship. When not thinking about Yasmin, he applies the same self-deprecating insight to other aspects of his time in America. Basically, he's drifted around the country with a fellow immigrant, a Muslim named Hayder, gambled a fair bit, and had some throwaway jobs.
Through the years, he has encountered no small measure of obtuse immigrant-haters, but Jeremiah likes America nonetheless. Indeed, he is tied to the U.S. in many ways, and doesn't really want to leave and as the novel progresses it becomes obvious that he's never going to board that plane, even if it means losing much-needed money on a non-refundable ticket. In the end, in the wee hours of the beer-soaked night, he makes a wrong turn on his way to the men's room and gets lost outside in the snow an apt metaphor for his psychological state. Kelman, who taught for a time at the University of Texas, deftly captures a certain soullessness in the American landscape and people that Jeremiah encounters. Far from a clichÅ½d vision of the immigrant experience, though, <B>You Have to Be Careful in the Land of the Free</B> offers a one-off portrait of a rootless, somewhat lethargic foreigner, a stranger in a strange land. It seems Jeremiah is not so much looking for the American Dream as he is trying to escape whatever he has left behind.
Many writers are touted as "original" or "unique," but Kelman really lives up to these adjectives. For realism's sake, he writes many words in a transliterated dialect Ye cannay (You cannot), gied (gave), Uhmerkin (American), Skallin (Scotland), etc. which takes some getting used to. It becomes pretty much second nature, however, as you get into the rhythm of the narrative.
Admittedly, You Have to Be Careful in the Land of the Free is a challenging book to read, and certainly not for everyone. For adventurous readers looking for something out of the ordinary, though, this imaginative novel is a good introduction to a, well, highly original writer.
Robert Weibezahl's book, A Second Helping of Murder (Poisoned Pen Press), has been nominated for an Agatha Award.