New novel “Dirt Road” is the first book I’ve read by Scottish writer James Kelman. It may not be representative of his usual work as I believe he has a reputation for writing novels that invoke Glaswegian patterns of speech which make it difficult for people unfamiliar with this dialect to understand. His Booker Prize winning novel “How Late It Was, How Late” was surrounded by controversy for its frequent use of bad language, but Kelman responded to these objections saying he was honouring and representing how working class people in Glasgow actually speak. “Dirt Road” features both Scottish and American Southern dialect because the story is about a US road trip, but it’s very readable and easy to understand. This emotionally affecting story closely follows the experiences of Scottish teenager Murdo as he and his father visit relatives in Alabama shortly after his mother died of cancer.
I’ve find it can take a while to get into novels that are so embedded in the moment to moment thoughts and feelings of their protagonists. It can feel at times like a chaotic accumulation of superfluous detail and tedious observations. It’s a testament to the skill of Kelman’s writing that I was surprised to find after fifty pages or so how mesmerising this narrative became and how close I felt to Murdo as he navigates a country that is bewildering and foreign to him. What’s more, his position of naivety gives a fresh perspective on social, national, racial and economic divisions within society highlighting their ridiculousness. In the middle of the novel, Murdo and his father Tom travel with an aunt and uncle to an American Scottish festival. The dress and activities on display here are a strange simulacrum of outdated traditions and are out of sync with modern Scottish sensibilities. It makes for funny scenes but it also feels like this contrast between the idea of a unified national character and actual Scottish characters make a poignant and timely statement about how national identity is porous and changeable. Kelman isn’t mocking the sense of community that festivals like this give, but he shows how they are more about the idea of a nation rather than truly representing the evolving complex reality of a nation.
Murdo is a talented accordion player and his teenage passion for this musical art form is poignantly rendered. He tries to explain to his father how he’s not academically gifted in the traditional sense, but gets a sensory education from listening to music: “Just hearing it the way I’m hearing it, it’s like learning, although I’m just listening like I hear it and I learn it. It’s just the way I do it Dad so I mean that’s just how it is.” When Murdo encounters attractive girl Sarah and her grandmother Queen Monzee-ay who is locally famous for her Zydeco music, the impressionable boy is strongly drawn to playing alongside them and joining this charismatic group of performers. Naturally, his father is protective and wary of his son setting out with bands of musicians when he’s still only sixteen and not an American citizen.
At the heart of the novel is how Murdo and his father Tom’s relationship changes as they learn how to live without the mother and Murdo’s sister Eilidh who died many years ago. I can’t help but feel Kelman must have been inspired by Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” in some way because of the novel’s title and the emotionally fragile father-son relationship it portrays as they travel together without a mother. When I think of McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel I’m immediately reminded of the chilling horror it portrays, but my more lasting impression is the bond shown between a man and his son. It’s a tricky thing to do especially because many men conform to their gender roles and don’t often openly discuss emotion. The same is true in “Dirt Road” where Tom spends a lot of time reading on his own while Murdo likes to escape to his aunt’s basement to listen to music in solitude. Conversations between them are short and to the point. Details about the emotional discord created by the mother’s death are gradually revealed, especially how Murdo was placed in a caring position for his father. He thinks with resentment: “The son shouldn’t have to feel sorry for the father. Jesus didn’t feel sorry for God.” But their experiences together during their journey create a more harmonious bond and mutual respect for each other.
Kelman is attentive to small differences in customs and behaviour making America strange to this Scottish boy such as the way tax is only added at the point of sale, the way many Americans use fork and knives differently from Europeans and the social separation between racial groups that exists in parts of the American south. It makes for atmospheric reading as it is so finely filtered through the sharply observed perspective of a sensitive teenage boy. Equally strong is the way Murdo is bewildered by his own changing identity as he builds a sense of self out of his interactions with other people: “Ye look in the mirror and see other people. Because they are seeing you.” This is an impactful story about a damaged father and son building a connection and respect for each other amidst their lingering grief, but it is also about how artificial lines of division break down when real connections are formed.