Dirt Road

dirt road

Dirt Road is James Kelman’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. While Stephen Dedalus, at the end of Joyce’s work, decides he must leave Ireland to flourish, Kelman’s protagonist, Murdo, leaves Scotland behind in the first few pages, heading to America with his father, Tom, to visit relatives. Murdo has no plans to forge the uncreated conscience of his race; though never stated, the trip is a reaction to the recent death of his mother:

“Mum died of cancer at the end of spring. This followed the death of Eilidh, his sister, seven years earlier, from the same disease, if cancer is a ‘disease’. He could not think of cancers like that because of the way they hit people. One minute they were fine but the next they were struck down. More like a bullet from a gun was how he saw it.”

Murdo’s road trip is a tale of two encounters: with a young girl, Sarah, who serves him in a small shop while they stop-over in Allentown, Misippippi on the way to his Uncle’s, and with the music of her Aunt, Queen Monzee-ay, which he hears the next day when he returns to the shop hoping to see Sarah. Murdo falls for both, and before he leaves he’s invited to join them for a gig in Lafayette in two weeks. The road of the novel is the road to the concert, which will represent both Murdo’s coming of age and his choice of music (art), impractical and precarious as it is, for his future.

H.G. Wells said of Joyce’s novel that “one believes in Stephen Dedalus as one believes in few characters in fiction,” and in this Kelman is Joyce’s successor. Dirt Road is so finely crafted as to appear without craft; so beautifully written that the writer disappears. You cannot prove this by quoting Kelman: immediately the quotation will clash with the language of the review, not unlike the comments of the ‘general public’ in a news report. Kelman’s prose works because only the language of the character, in this case Murdo, is allowed; once we are immersed in the rhythms of that language, Murdo may as well be real, one reason, perhaps, the ending feels a little as if someone has simply pressed pause.

Yes, Kelman’s novels are political, but he is as likely to capitalise that p as he is to begin using quotation marks for dialogue. Criticism of America permeates the novel, but is subsumed into the narrative. Race is one example. When Sarah’s brother, Joel, sees Murdo watching Queen Monzee-ay play he says:

“This aint your place. What you doing round here? What you spying on us!”

It’s the fact that Murdo is white which lies behind “This aint your place” but trace doesn’t impinge on Murdo’s consciousness unless placed there by others. Later a friend of Uncle John’s will comment on their stop-over:

“One night huh. You see a white face?”

Similarly, labour conditions in the US are alluded to when we discover that Uncle John has not been allowed any time off for the visit:

“After twenty-two years! Huh! They wouldn’t give him no proper time off! His family from Scotland!”

Kelman’s main theme, however, is immigration. Looking though a road atlas, Murdo is amazed to find numerous place names which he recognises:

“Look! Gretna! Imagine Gretna! Elgin! Jeesoh, Elgin! McKenney! Cadder! Aberdeen! Aberdeen, actual Aberdeen. It’s all Scottish names Aunt Maureen. Glasgow!”

Queen Monzee-ay’s name, written down, is Menzies. As Kelman has said:

“The absurdity of this whole thing about immigration gets shown up in these characters. The idea of any culture being homogenous, which is nonsense.”

This, in turn, is reflected in the music: in the folk songs, passed on, often with words adapted to new lands, in musical styles, and in the musicians playing together.

Dirt Road is a wonderful novel – perhaps Kelman’s best. It is worth reading for its portrayal of the relationship between Murdo and his father alone. Shorn of all romanticism, it is the best argument you will ever read for art.

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7 Responses to “Dirt Road”

  1. elizabethmaddenlitblog Says:

    As a dedicated Joyce enthusiast who’s currently writing an article on A Portrait and its representation of childhood, I’m really interested to read this, and compare the two. Thanks for the review.

  2. elizabethmaddenlitblog Says:

    Reblogged this on elizabethmaddenreads and commented:
    As a dedicated Joyce enthusiast who’s currently writing an article on A Portrait and its representation of childhood, I’m really interested to read this, and compare the two. Thanks for the review.

  3. JacquiWine Says:

    A brilliant review of what sounds like a truly excellent book. If I could clone myself and produce another Jacqui to focus on contemporary literature, this is exactly the kind of novel I would like her to read. As it is, I’m planning to continue with my extended foray into 20th century lit, but that may well change at some point in the future.

    I’m interested in what you say about the linguistic rhythm in relation to the lead character here. It made me think of Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, which I haven’t read but have listened to in part via audio readings. Are there similarities between these two novels, do you think? Also, I was wondering if you’ve ever seen Kelman at a literary event – was he at the recent Edinburgh lit fest? If so, it would be interesting to hear a little more about that – if you have a chance of course.

    • 1streading Says:

      I’ve not read A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing but I have seen it on stage – it seems much more ‘literary’. I think the quote from Roddy Doyle on the back of Dirt Road sums it up well – “The words feel so believable I forgot at times I was reading fiction.”
      I have seen him speak a number of times, most recently about this book at Edinburgh Book Festival – unfortunately he read so much from the book it didn’t leave much time for discussion!

  4. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Punchy first and last sentence Grant. I haven’t yet read any Kelman, and have one of his undread (I think The Busconductor Hines, have you read it?). You make a bloody good case for this though. Do you think then it represents a new level for his art, or has he just always been this good and not getting the attention he merits?

    • 1streading Says:

      Busconductor Hines is his first novel – but also great. A Disaffection is also a favourite of mine. It’s difficult to decide whether he gets the attention he deserves – he was twice shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize when it was awarded for a writer’s body of work, but I don’t think he’s ever been taken seriously in the UK (okay, England) because of the way he writes.
      He won the Booker, but because one of the jury walked out in protest he has said it actually damaged his career and he found it more difficult to get published after!
      In my opinion he’s one of the few world class writers produced in the UK in the last fifty years.

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