American Stars and Bars

Kelman and Doctorow on boozehounds and babykillers

James Kelman
You Have to be Careful in the Land of the Free
Harcourt

Reading James Kelman's new novel, You Have to Be Careful in the Land of the Free, is like indulging in a pint of dark, loamy ale. After the first couple of sips, you're not sure if you can finish the glass--it's bitter and heavy After a few more swallows, you find yourself appreciating the drink's complexity, the rich texture and blend of flavors. By the last swig, you're parched and craving more.

Such is the journey through this novel, which unfolds primarily as a dive-bar soliloquy. In fact, Kelman and his neurotic hero would probably recommend that you enjoy this book with a few pints. A little liquor might help you decipher the narrator's brogue; it will most certainly help you to relate to Jeremiah, a thirtysomething Scotsman with a one-way ticket back to Glasgow. He spends his final night in the States fumbling through the bars of a Midwestern college town, ranting on family, sports, celebrity, gambling, travel, and friendship. He muses about the random inequities of the immigrant experience post-9/11, his strained relationship with his mother (back home in "Skallin,") and most frequently, his ex-lover Yasmin and their baby:

Murdo MacLeod

But ye never know what ye want, no at the time. Then it is too late. Even that isnay true. I knew what I wantit, I wantit her, and then she was pregnant, and I wantit her even mair, and the wean, and then she had the wean for christ sake it was beautiful. So I did know what I wantit. I just messed it up.

Despite his vices (numerous) his language (worse than a pissed-off stevedore's) and his personal shortcomings (copious and egregious), Jeremiah endears himself to the reader with self-deprecation and salty-but-affecting vignettes from his life. He speculates about the personal stories of strangers in bars and offers up tales of his childhood with the ease of a trusted friend. As he grows increasingly drunk, his observations somehow become more lucid. He is the unluckiest of men, and yet he possesses a strange kind of optimism, an eager eye for the future.

Kelman's prose, rich in dialect and at times fragmented into poetic line breaks, is well worth the time required to fully comprehend its rhythms. Settle back with a few beers, or better yet, haul this novel off to your favorite ill-lit tavern. You might get lucky and end up sitting next to someone as engaging as Jeremiah.

 
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