On the surface, James Kelman’s new novel Dirt Road reads like an extended version of the old writing exercise beloved of teachers after the long summer break: “What I did on my holidays.” Here, over almost 400 pages, 16-year-old Murdo Macarthur’s “amazing-mazing” two weeks in America with his father Tom is recorded in all its glory.
Those classroom stories — about foreign adventures, visits to distant relatives, long journeys and new friends — tend to be recounted in simple, deadpan language. Kelman’s tale, in which Murdo’s thoughts and experiences are rendered in a free indirect style, has a similar quality, as we are taken from their small Scottish community via boat, plane and numerous buses to the southern states, where they are visiting Uncle John and Aunt Maureen.
En route Murdo and Tom have an unscheduled layover in Allentown, Mississippi, where, rather implausibly, Murdo — an accomplished accordion player — stumbles upon an aged Zydeco star named Queen Monzee-ay playing in her backyard. Following their subsequent jam session, she invites Murdo to play with her band at a festival in Lafayette two weeks hence. It is this offer that drives the novel.
Before then Murdo must endure a rather tedious sojourn with his relatives, during which he variously lies in the garden sunbathing, goes for inconsequential walks round the block, sits listening to CDs in the basement guestroom or pores over a road atlas plotting the route to the gig. The routine is punctuated only by a visit to the mall and a trip to The Gathering, a local festival for Americans of Celtic descent.
Although recounted in often repetitive detail (the sandwiches eaten and T-shirts worn are documented along the way), the seeming lightness of the novel’s slim plot is freighted with meaning. Murdo and his uncommunicative father are both grieving the loss of Murdo’s mother who, like his sister Eilidh seven years earlier, has succumbed to a cancer that “struck through the female line and ended in death”.
Murdo’s slow interior life throws into sharp contrast his passion for music. There are some beautiful passages that capture what being “in” the music means to him; the escape it offers but also the sense of belonging. Music is his life, where the broken, staccato rhythm of his interior monologue takes on a fluid, effortless form.
“Today was the first gig he had been to in ages. Since before Mum died. And being in the audience was good. That strong effect it had inside ye. The music into the body, connecting ye. Sound wasnt just mental it was physical, made up of these tiny wee particles just like anything else; yer hair and yer teeth, yer socks and shoes; yer entire body: sounds were part of it.”
Although Murdo’s naive narrative style captures the essence of a teenager on the cusp of manhood struggling with grief, responsibility, desire and family, Kelman, who won the 1994 Booker prize for How Late It Was, How Late, is far too accomplished a novelist to leave it there. Through the accretion of details, of everything said and unsaid, he probes the deep well of grief in both Murdo and his father. Tom, whom we see through Murdo’s eyes, is carefully drawn. His own palpable sadness — largely misunderstood by Murdo — is at points heartbreaking. Murdo, too, is a living and breathing character; there’s a kindness and thoughtfulness to the boy that colours the novel as a whole.
Through father and son, Kelman sensitively explores the nature of choice and fate; Murdo slowly grows to recognise the circumstances that constrain the adults around him, whether it be jobs, money or family.
Where Tom is limited by fear (“there’s a lot of crazies about,” he warns Murdo at one point. “Road rage here son they pull a gun on ye”), Murdo recognises that life is to be engaged with, not recoiled from. As he thinks later, about playing live: “If ye go wrong ye get the chance to make it right. But the chance only comes in the playing. If ye dont stick with it ye dont get it, ye dont right the wrong.”
Dirt Road may not have quite the grit of Kelman’s previous work, and the novel’s ending, with Murdo heading off into the sunrise (rather than sunset), stretches plausibility, but the hopeful spirit in which Kelman allows Murdo to traverse both his grief and his adventure on the road makes for an engrossing and moving coming-of-age tale.
Dirt Road, James Kelman, Canongate, RRP£16.99, 384 pages
Get alerts on Fiction when a new story is published