Kieron Smith, Boy

The Year of Reading Dangerously – James Kelman

Looking back, the 1980s were a golden age for Scottish literature. Following the publication of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark in 1981, James Kelman’s first volume of short stories (in the UK), Not Not While the Giro, was released in 1983; both came from small Scottish publishers. By the end of the decade we had also seen first volumes from Janice Galloway (The Trick is to Keep Breathing, 1989) and A. L. Kennedy (Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains, 1990). All four writers continue to produce important work and arguably have never been succeeded by a new generation of equivalent talent in Scotland.

Kelman has since published seven novels, the latest, Kieron Smith, Boy, in 2008. Although Kelman is often caricatured as a narrowly Scottish, or even Glaswegian, writer, his work has actually shown a remarkable range from the working class protagonist of The Busconductor Hines to the teacher of A Disaffection. His follow up to Booker winning How Late It Was, How Late purported to be a series of translated statements from an unnamed country under military rule. This was followed by a novel set in the United States. Kieron Smith continues to explore new territory as, although Kelman returns to the Glasgow, we view it through the eyes of a child, the four hundred pages covering the years between age 10 and 12 in Kieron’s life. This is particularly important with Kelman, where the entire narrative is immersed in the consciousness of his character.

From the opening sentence, we are in Kieron’s mind, and it is not by any means an outstanding mind: one of the tricks Kelman plays with the Scottish tradition of the clever working class boy encouraged to better things by a teacher is to suggest that this is happening off-stage with Kieron’s brother, Matt:

“His books and jotters were there but just scattered about. One thing he done was a foreign language, Latin.”

As for Kieron:

“My teacher said if I just stopped frittering, frittering, frittering. I was good at my lessons except I did not try.”

Kieron prefers climbing, playing football, and going out with his pals. For much of the novel he is concerned with fighting (he does not actually fight anyone – unusual in a young boy and possibly a deliberate avoidance of anything that might seem like action on Kelman’s part). His granda teaches him to box:

“Never mind if he is a big boy son ye just box him, boof, boof, boof. Ye box the mitts off him, that is what ye do.”

His Uncle Billy has different ideas:

“That was what Uncle Billy said, and once ye got them down, ye did not let them back up, ye just carried on till they could not hit ye back. Ye had to stop them else they would stop you. Even if they were decked, ye still had to fight them.”

He frequently speculates whether boys are ‘best fighters’, and his friendships, for example with Podgie, are often partly based on fear. Kelman convincingly recreates the threat of violence that permeates the life of boys, perhaps best exemplified by the alley that Kieron must walk down to get the train home from school where a gang are always waiting. His other choices are a lengthy detour, or a short cut through back gardens which will inevitably lead to trouble at school.

Of course, there is no plot to speak off, and the same topics come round again and again. Kieron’s character develops (for example, he becomes interested in girls) but this development is not marked by key moments. (Though it is, amusingly, by his attitude towards swearing, which he self-censors throughout until near the very end) There are a few events that in another novel would create plot (his granda’s death, the move from primary to secondary school), but they are simply absorbed into the narrative. There is no description – a park is simply ‘the park’.

Michel Faber has described the novel as “both very revolutionary and very, very dull.” However, though I did find the narrative voice a little tedious at first, there came a point when I fell so entirely into Kieron’s world that its ordinariness simply felt real. Kelman presents Kieron’s life without pathos or irony (the special effects the novelist applies to his story); in fact we might simply say: Kelman presents Kieron’s life.

Danger rating: do not expect ‘action-packed’, or indeed any adjective that might apply to multiplex viewing. Or any adjective.

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