James Kelman,
You Have to Be Careful in the Land of the Free
(Harcourt, 2004)

This novel takes the form of a monologue by Jeremiah Brown, a Scotsman who has been living in the U.S. for 12 years, on the evening before he returns to Glasgow. James Kelman writes in a stream-of-consciousness style peppered with Scots dialect and four-letter words. There is no doubting the technical skill in sustaining the protagonist's drink-fuelled voice through a 400-page novel. Jeremiah talks of his work as a barman and security guard, his gambling addiction and relationship with his ex-girlfriend Yasmin, with whom he has had a daughter.

I do have several problems with this novel. I can't quite believe in the main character and his narrative voice. He is meant to be a budding writer but he seems dim-witted at times and lacking awareness about himself and the world around him. Some of his story is boring, too, particularly the long sections about the security industry in which there is a lot of posturing. It takes about two-thirds of the novel for the narrative to perk up when there is more concentration about his relationship with Yasmin and her life as a jazz singer. The insecure world of a musician is authentically depicted. Also, the novel is successful in building up tension at the novel's conclusion as Jeremiah becomes increasingly drunk and ends up blundering about outside in the snow. Will he make it to the plane in the morning?

Another characteristic of the novel is the constant use of curse words that, although undoubtedly adding to the authenticity of the narrative voice, can become tedious and actually detract from some of the comic potential. Many readers will agree immediately with Jeremiah's realisation that he can't see what Yasmin ever saw in him. Indeed he seems to me to be a man you would do your level best to avoid talking to in a bar! Throughout the novel though you do get a sense of how difficult life is for a Red Card holder and the sense of alienation it creates.

If you are a reader fascinated by rambling and gritty life stories written in the first person, then this one might be for you. If not, then it's probably best to stay clear.

- Rambles
written by Andy Jurgis
published 26 February 2005

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