Dirt Road


Dirt Road
By James Kelman
Canongate – £16.99

According to Roddy Doyle, Dirt Road ”is a brilliant, a deeply moving and exciting novel. The words feel so believable I forgot at times that I was reading fiction.” To be honest, I can only partially agree, as the more I read, the more I felt weighted down by some sort of undercurrent of literary deja vu.

To quote The Talking Heads singer, David Byrne, ”say something once, why say it again?”

Indeed, why say it again, which was uppermost in my mind having read this book, which, albeit terrifically well written, bordered on being rather pregnant in explanation; so much so, that the choice of words didn’t so much as punctuate the imagination, but rather tout themselves in such a way that almost lingered towards being humdrum.

The following excerpts from pages 34 and 214 respectively, being more than pertinent, strident example: Murdo wondered what would happen but nothing did happen. Somebody clapped and somebody laughed, and the accordeon player spoke to people. This was a community place composed of back gardens running into each other; some had fences and some didn’t. Kids played wherever; girls throwing a ball and a couple of boys horsing around. A dozen folk were sitting on chairs. Dotted about the grass. A few were standing” […] ”They were passing through a built-up area. Uncle John was doing his cheery wee whistling now, hardly making a sound other than the breath escaping, how it escapes sometimes like how with the pipes the bag expels air, the breath, huh, hih huh hih huh hih, and the drone, that drone.”

It’s all a bit blah, overtly linear, and dare I say, so what?

Essentially anchored around the two prime protagonists, Murdo, a teenager obsessed with music who dreams of a life beyond his Scottish island home; and his father Tom, who has recently lost his wife and stumbles towards a future underlined with the sort of insecurity which only grief can necessitate.

So in all, a cool premise form which to embark writing; but again, I found the writing merely meandered within the cloying parameters of nigh beige repetition – a quality, which, given Kelman’s very substantial back-catalogue (The Busconducter Hines, A Chancer, How It Was, How Late and You Have To Be Careful In The Land Of The Free to name but four titles), is a tad surprising to say the least.

I can’t help but think that Dirt Road would have benefited greatly had a robust editor been on-board. But what do I know?

David Marx


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