Kieron Smith, Boy book cover

Kieron Smith, Boy book review

I have come late to James Kelman and have a lot of catching up to do. While he was winning the Booker Prize (How Late it Was, How Late, 1994), and being castigated for it, I was working on my own first novel and reading authors on this side of the Atlantic: Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient); Carol Shields (The Stone Diaries); Margaret Atwood (Alias Grace); Alice Munro (Open Secrets). Oh, and Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott, still one of the best books on writing to appear in the last 20 years. (Stephen King’s On Writing is a close second but, to me, still a second.)

I did read Irvine Welsh and discovered Ian Rankin through the Inspector Rebus series on ITV, but somehow missed the Glasgow novelist who’s been compared to James Joyce and Samuel Becket, and whose work divides the critics like a sharp knife through butter. One of the Booker judges denounced How Late it Was as unreadable “crap” and said the awarding of the prize to Kelman was “a disgrace”. The Times called it “literary vandalism”; Kingsley Amis dismissed it as “one of the last and least of the big-fuck novels”.

The London Review of Books, however, has praised him as “a radical Modernist writer of exceptional brilliance”. And the New Zealand-born Scottish writer Kirsty Gunn has called him “the greatest British writer of our time”. It’s the profanity, among other things, that gets up the noses of certain people, which may be why Kelman, in Kieron Smith, boy, has chosen to use asterisks in place of letters. He sprinkles them throughout the narrative in a kind of thumb-nosing, up-yours manner, giving us c**k and f**k and c**t and f*****g. Some of these, like w*****g and t****r, need a bit of puzzling out, but by the last few chapters Kelman drops the niceties and we get the words in full.

Now there, I’ve misled you. There are no chapters in Kieron Smith, boy. There’s no plot, either, to speak of. Just the somewhat incoherent ramblings of a young boy from a rough working-class district of Glasgow. Growing up, I think, in the 1950s, but it could be earlier. There are no dates, and few references to the outside world although we learn that his family moves from their tenement flat to one of the new housing schemes built on the outskirts of the city after the Second World War.

Five years old when the story begins, Kieron is the youngest in a family of four. His father’s in the merchant navy, and his older brother, Matt, wants nothing to do with him. Like most younger children, Kieron believes that life isn’t fair. His questions go unanswered, his natural curiosity is discouraged. At home, his brother is favoured with a proper desk and the window side of the bedroom while Kieron gets nothing but blame and “doings” from his da (an all-encompassing term for anything from a slap on the bum to a full-on beating). To be fair, Matt pays attention in school and studies hard to get ahead, while Kieron skips out to visit his grannie or take a ferry up the Clyde. His teachers complain that he doesn’t concentrate in class, and he’s certainly no stranger to the strap. (Side note: the sheer brutality of some of his instructors brought back memories of more than one elementary school teacher who ruled the classroom by humiliating his students. Are you listening, Mr. Dale?)

Kieron’s name is a source of angst to some extent. He worries that it’s a Catholic name, and he’s been brought up to hate “Papes”. As a “Proddy” he has to beware of wandering into Catholic territory, an especial problem in that he lives not far from the Rangers football stadium. (In sectarian Glasgow, Rangers F.C. is a Protestant club while Celtic is Catholic.) When Celtic fans come to see their team play, the rivalry is played out on the field and off. Parts of the neighbourhood are either Catholic or Protestant; turning up in the wrong place is asking for trouble.

While Kieron has all the prejudices of his class there is much in him to admire. He loves his grandparents, especially his grandad, who was a champion boxer when he was young and teaches him how to defend himself without stooping to “dirty” fighting. He pals around with Podgie and Mitch, who are relatively bad apples, but he has a strong moral compass. He’s not a bully, is kind to animals, and is pretty fearless, standing up for himself against bigger boys, and climbing everything in sight. When neighbouring women get locked out of their apartments, it’s Kieron who shinnies up the ronepipe (roof gutter) and gets through the upstairs window.

Language is at the heart of the narrative; Kieron’s mother, in particular, has bought into the idea that speaking well means speaking like an English person, not a Scot. Kieron self-censors (hence the asterisks) because he’s been brought up to believe that certain words are inherently bad. Speaking like a Glaswegian is bad; he must learn to speak properly, which means using what we used to call “the King’s English”. His mother demands it; she remonstrates with her husband, who uses mild profanity at every turn, and encourages her sons to speak nicely. The teachers at school reinforce it: “It was say yes and not aye, down and not doon, am not and no um nay, ye were just to speak nice.”

Kelman, who considers Scotland to be an occupied nation, has written reams on the cultural oppression, or suppression, of language. At the Booker awards dinner, a black-tie affair which he attended in a business suit and open neck shirt, he gave a spirited defence of his use of the vernacular: “My culture and my language have the right to exist, and no one has the authority to dismiss that. . . . A fine line can exist between élitism and racism. On matters concerning language and culture, the distance can sometimes cease to exist altogether.”

The characters in Kieron Smith, boy are limited – they have limited opportunities, limited futures. But the dreams of a child are not limited; without any of the trappings of fancy phrasing, Kieron’s dreams soar beyond the street litter, the dead-end jobs, and the crumbling tenements into the stratosphere of possibility. By the time we leave him, teetering on the verge of adolescence, we hope for the best for this boy, who imagines himself climbing yet another ronepipe, losing his grip, and being rescued by the ghost of his grandfather:

“So yer granda would be there, his spirit would come to yer rescue, maybe a breath of wind or a hard blowing wind, to stop ye hitting the ground heid first, ye would land one foot at a time, nice and soft, or else in a big pile of sacks and just get up and walk away. Oh that was lucky, and it would be, except if it was him, yer granda”.