Dirt Road by James Kelman

Road trip to the basement…


dirt roadA young boy and his father, grieving for the recent loss of the boy’s mother and the longer ago loss of his sister, go on a trip to visit relatives in America. While there, Murdo meets up with a family of musicians, who invite him to play his accordion (annoyingly spelled accordeon throughout in my advance reading copy, whether intentionally or accidentally I know not) at a gig in a couple of weeks time. Murdo assumes his father won’t want him to go. In fact, his father wants nothing more than to sit around the relatives’ house and read, while Murdo lies on his bed in the basement, bored out of his head, listening to one of the two CDs he has. At the point where I finally threw in the towel (33%) they had only left the house once, and that was to go to the mall for a couple of hours.

The writing is undoubtedly excellent. Although written in the third person, the reader is entirely inside Murdo’s head, listening to his thoughts. It’s not stream of consciousness in the sense of long complicated sentences. Quite the reverse in fact – the sentences tend to be short and plain. But we do see Murdo’s thoughts drift and circle. On a technical level, it’s beautifully sustained and the voice and emotions ring true. My only criticism of the style is that, for some obscure reason, Kelman, having decided not to “do” Scottish dialect, still substitutes the word “ye” for “you” all the way through. This drove me mad. Either do a Scottish accent or don’t!

James Kelman
James Kelman

But the real issue is that there is no discernible plot or story. I realise that’s all the rage these days in some quarters of the lit-fic world and that many readers enjoy lengthy studies of emotions we have surely all felt, but it bores me rigid. The book is purely character study and stylish prose, and that’s not enough to make a novel. The blurb describes it as a road trip, but to be a road trip surely involves going out of the house occasionally. While the journey to America is moderately interesting, once they reach their destination it becomes entirely static. There is no sense of place, other than that I could describe Murdo’s basement and the shopping mall in detail. But happily for you, I won’t.

The only questions are, will Murdo go to the gig or not and will he and his father learn to communicate with each other? After what felt like hours of nothing happening, I found I couldn’t care less, and certainly not enough to stay with him in his basement for another couple of hundred pages, listening to him go round in endless circles about what it’s like to be a bored, isolated and grieving teenager. So I abandoned it and feel much better now, ye know. Perhaps it becomes more interesting later – perhaps there even is the promised road trip. But I’m afraid I’d had enough. This trend for books which do nothing but wallow in descriptions of fictional grief is not for me. The quality of the prose makes my 1-star harsh, but if I find a book so tedious that I can’t face reading on, then it seems ridiculous to rate it any higher.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Canongate.

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50 thoughts on “Dirt Road by James Kelman

  1. I’m in a similar situation with the (much-lauded) novel I’m currently wading through: the action started on page 98, by which time I’d learned a lot about the narrator — especially her irregular bowel movements, which is just the sort of stuff you want to read about — but not really a lot else. As you say, plots are good things for novels to have.

    • Hahaha! Irregular bowel movements is pretty much top of my list of things I don’t want to read about. There are so many plotless novels at the moment – I’d lock them in a room with the complete works of Dickens and not let them out till they’ve read them… I was really sorry, though, given that Kelman is Scotland’s only Booker winner.

  2. Sometimes when you get a lemon…it isn’t even worth the trouble to make lemonade!
    Good decison, push the ‘abort’ button.

    • Haha! So true! I seem to be abandoning an awful lot of books this year – I think I’m out of tune with contemporary trends. Can’t wait to start reading some of my classics list…

  3. Oh, sorry to hear this one was such a disappointment, FictionFan! But you really make a well-taken point about the need for a plot. For me, anyway, if a book is going to be a character study or ‘slice of life’ sort of thing, that’s fine. But it has to have a plot to hold it together. I actually think that’s quite like life. Yes, we have our inner selves, we interact with others, we go to the mall or whatever. But there are, if I can put it this way, plots in our lives. Speaking strictly for myself, I like books to have them, too.

    • I was sorry too, especially since Kelman is Scotland’s only Booker winner, so I was really hoping I’d love it. Yes, I’m afraid character studies alone aren’t enough – there has to be some action to hold my interest. And I am so tired of this major grief motif that’s going on both in lit-fic and crime at the moment – there’s only so many ways to describe it really. There has to be something else too…

  4. Woohoo a one star review – my favourite! And what a sad little face that is, almost embarrassed to be there, ranking this novel. It sounds hideous, to be fair, and a waste of the writer’s no doubt impressive talent. Why to people write such dire tomes? Why do they get published? These are far more interesting questions than raised in this book. In fact, I shall rate my comment – two stars!!

  5. I had a similar experience recently with a German book about housewives and mothers and wives – it was oh so subtle and dull, just living in those women’s heads, hopping from one to the other, and nothing happened for about half of the book. I did persist, and things livened up at the end, but I’m still not sure if I wouldn’t have been better occupied elsewhere.

    • It doesn’t matter how well it’s done, I really need something more than this kind of interior monologue stuff. I tried to persevere but I’d reached that point where I had almost stopped reading altogether because I was looking for excuses not to go back to it. Not a good sign! Ah, well. I’m disappointed though, since Kelman is Scotland’s only Booker winner, so I was hoping I’d love it…

  6. Tell it not in Gath, whisper it not in Ashkalon – I don’t like James Kelman’s books, even if he is a Scot. So there! Oh, sorry, lapsed into a trantrum for a few seconds there – maybe it’s refereeing Bonnie and Teddy that did it! 🙂

    • My first – and at least he had toned down the swearing which I believe is what he’s usually famous for. But this “ye” business made me want to hit him over the head with the Complete Broons Book. Haha! Good luck with that! My money’s on Teddy…

  7. So, if you DO fancy writing a book about bowel movements, I might be able to advise – as long as they are feline BMs. Back from a vet’s visit where much of the conversation went this way. Cats can get IBS too!

          • I had to get a rush delivery from Amazon rather than the cheaper slower option from America. He won’t touch anything from that packet. Amazon packed inappropriately and I think pack taste contaminated .. diet not thought to be a prime cause at he moment. Mine are jaded metropolitan s now, wanting new tastes at every meal

            • Mine are getting incredibly fussy too, but they’re going the other way – they’ll only eat certain things. It’s annoying, I’ve even pretty much stopped taking cat food from Vine because they reject every one and I don’t think it’s fair to keep giving negative reviews when I’m sure it’s the cats rather than the food. I hope he recovers soon, for both your sakes!

  8. Well, the blurb sounds interesting — too bad the resulting work didn’t live up to expectations. But like you, I’d have tossed in the towel (if truth be told, I’d have bailed way earlier!). Life is far too short to endure books where nothing happens — seriously, what was the publisher thinking?!?

    • I reckon the publisher was thinking “Booker-prize winning author = £££s!” but maybe I’m too cynical. 😉 To be more fair, it is well written and as usual lots of people seem to be enjoying it, but I’m so tired of these novels that just stay inside a character’s head for hundreds of pages while nothing much happens…

  9. I would not qualify a trip into the basement as a road trip, even if it involves crossing the ocean first to get to said basement. I agree with you that quite a few contemporary novels seem to do nothing but wallow in how terrible everything is. Too often I find myself tempted to tell the characters to pull themselves together and focus on something of value. After all, they are fictional, so it shouldn’t be all that hard to make a change. 😉

    • Haha! Couldn’t agree more! I wonder why it’s become such a thing in novels though – I always joke they’re to make sure we don’t get too happy, but given the state of the world there’s very little chance of that happening any time soon, I’d have thought… 😉 It’s sad when you get excited because the characters go to the mall!

  10. Well it was high time for a rip! I’m with ye; books with little to no plot kill me, even when the writing is good. There needs to be enough to move the story forward. I love a good catalyst, but there needs to be sufficient follow through!

    (Did ye notice? I decided to go for Scottish dialect!)😎

  11. What a shame – I’ve read two of his books and not much happened and they were a bit meandering (and sweary) but I found them incredibly funny and moving. So I wonder if it’s not liking him or this book is a bad book by him, if you see what I mean. I think I’ll look out for it in the charity shops so not a huge outlay if it’s not great!

    • This is the only one I’ve read so it’s hard to know. It’s certainly true that lots of people like these slow books where not a lot happens, but they almost never work for me unless the writing is so fantastic it’s enough to carry it. There was some humour in this but mainly grief-wallowing – this year’s trend! And very little swearing, which surprised me given his reputation. If you’ve liked him before, it’s definitely worth trying it anyway…

    • I seem to have abandoned an awful lot recently – it used to be a rare occurrence! But I really have reached a point where I see no reason to struggle on if I’m finding a book too tedious – there’s bound to be something I’ll enjoy more in the TBR… 😉

  12. Uh, a lot of small press fiction in the United States did this. A writer name Tao Lin is the head of it. It’s a group of late twenties guys who are sad and depressed and oh so emo and like to hang around and woo girls in their early twenties.

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