James Kelman’s ‘Dirt Road’ Travels a Path to Solace

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Lorenzo Gritti

DIRT ROAD
By James Kelman
407 pp. Catapult. Paper, $16.95.

James Kelman has made a career out of giving voice to the ordinary thoughts of his ordinary characters. And not just their literary-flavored ordinary thoughts, but their banal, sentimental, sometimes incoherent ramblings. His work has been amply rewarded with literary prizes, most notably the Man Booker, which he won for his novel “How Late It Was, How Late” in 1994. But Kelman has never made the commercial breakthrough of other Booker winners of his generation like Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro, partly because he specializes in the kind of novel in which not much happens.

Actually, that’s a category that has more to do with style than substance. Things do happen in Kelman’s books, but he does his best to disguise them. His latest novel, “Dirt Road,” follows a Scottish father and son on a holiday trip to Alabama. Although there’s plenty of drama, much of it takes place offstage. The boy’s mother and sister have recently died from the same kind of cancer; these two survivors are trying to escape the misery of home while visiting some relatives who escaped to America a few decades earlier. The father’s uncle has made a new life for himself, often working three jobs to pay for it, and one of the questions the protagonists face is whether they should follow his lead.

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The narrative unfolds from the point of view of Murdo, the 16-year-old son: music-mad, bad at school, angry (for understandable reasons) about his life in Scotland and fighting with his dad for freedoms he hasn’t done much to deserve. When Murdo goes walkabout in a bus station, they miss their connection and have to spend the night at a motel in Allentown, Miss. This delay allows Kelman to develop the chance meeting between Murdo and Sarah, a girl who works at a local convenience store and whose grandmother turns out to be a famous musician, the zydeco “legend” Queen Monzee-ay. This encounter will eventually frame the action of the story a week later when Queen Monzee-ay invites Murdo to join her onstage at a festival in Lafayette.

The happenstance nature of all this is carefully orchestrated. Sometimes Kelman’s carefulness shows through, a visible seam holding the plot together, but he compensates for this with the wonderfully observed slow accumulation of detail that makes up…

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