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.