erasing clouds

Book Review: James Kelman's You Have to be Careful in the Land of the Free

by anna battista

A while back the North American peace movement launched a campaign to free Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejía, condemned to one year's imprisonment for desertion. Mejía, the son of Nicaraguan songwriter Carlos Mejía Godoy, refused to go back to Iraq after a short leave in the States because he had witnessed there the abuses perpetrated by the US army during the war. Camilo Mejía is one of the many non-American men who, by serving the army, received from the States the lawful permanent residence or green card, but not the citizenship. It is indeed easier to obtain the Green Card for immigrants if they enrol in the army. Apparently, the American army authorities use the official immigration status as bait to convince immigrants from the poorest background, to join the army.

Now, this story might not be at the centre of James Kelman's new book, You Have to be Careful in the Land of the Free, but in a way it has something to do with it. The main character is a Scottish immigrant. Kelman's new protagonist is called Jeremiah Brown, he's Scottish but often boasts he has got distant American ancestors, and he's lived in the States for the last 12 years, being exploited in various minimum-wage jobs. Jeremiah is the proud carrier of a Grade III Red Card which he's often asked to produce at the request of various people in bars, at work and in different other situations. "I am a non-integratit unassimilatit member of the alienigenae," Jeremiah explains during a job interview when he's asked by the sceptical interviewee what he means describing himself as a "libertarian socialist atheist".

We meet Jeremiah a few hours before his flight back to Scotland where he's decided to go to visit his family. Yet, since, according to him, only failures go home and he's "exiled" himself for the last few years because people exile themselves "to avoid hurting their families and friends", he's a bit worried about going back and he's actually toying with the idea of missing that plane. He is spending the hours that separate him from his flight back to Scotland wandering from pub to pub, meeting strange characters and reminiscing. While he remembers, we learn that he's a failed gambler, that he worked as a bartender for many years and then found a job in the security business, that he is writing, or rather would like to write, a crime novel with a good and honest hero as main character, that he is the father of a four-year-old child and has become estranged from the mother of his daughter, a jazz singer.

Jeremiah sees himself as a "fucking failure", an "alien furnir fucker" trapped in a colour-coded world in which he can only be a red card carrier, a state he's happy with, as he claims in one of his tirades, "I didnay want to be one of these cunts anyway, even if they offered me. I was happy with my status … Ah am a republican, vive la république! Ah am a socialiste, vive le socialiste! Ah am a Worker of the World; vive le internationale; vive vive vive, emancipation, egalité and the rights of man, and woman and humanity…"

You Have to be Careful in the Land of the Free is a novel about identity and status in a globalised America, a place where there is very little escape, as Jeremiah states, here, "naybody can be outside the system". Kelman doesn't mention 9/11 in the book, but the America portrayed in it is a country where paranoia is rife, American authorities are crying for more and more security workers, skint people (be they American or foreigners) live on the "persian bet" (basically, betting on surviving in plane crashes), immigrants ramble around airports and so-called Patriot Holding Centers, places "designed for asylum-seeking furnir suspects", are overcrowded.

The plot of You Have to be Careful… is never interrupted by any division in chapters or sections. The narration is a long stream of consciousness, more accessible perhaps than Kelman's previous book Translated Accounts, but characterised by that Glaswegian vernacular so dear to Kelman. The story is at times sad and sentimental, always interspersed with dark humour (check out Jeremiah's complaints on American toilet paper: "…supreme destroyer of the planet; leader in the world exploitation, in the destruction of all human endeavour; supporter of the tyrant and genocidal murderer, yet they couldnay wipe their dowp without sticking a finger through the paper, dear oh dear…") and humanity, two traits that always characterise Kelman's protagonists.

James Kelman is often seen by critics as "a working-class writer" whose only merit seems to have liberated other working-class writers and helped them to tackle any subject they wanted to tackle and say what they wanted to say. But there's more to Kelman than this: he is not only the writer who gave voice to the oppressed, dispossessed, disillusioned working-classes with his characters such as the poor, but more than dignified Robert Hines in Bus Conductor Hines (1984), the frustrated teacher Patrick Doyle in A Disaffection (1989) and the blinded Sammy in How Late it Was, How Late, the book that won Kelman the 1994 Booker Prize. Kelman is a writer who's not scared of attacking the establishment, of writing about justice, freedom of expression, human rights, racism, the condition of refugees and asylum seekers in the UK, politics and culture, as the anthologies of essays Some Recent Attacks: Essays Cultural and Political (1992) and "And The Judges Said…" (2002) also prove.

You Have to be Careful in the Land of the Free is not a caustic essay about the US global policy. Kelman's new book, is simply the story of a man, an immigrant like many of us, criminalised by the country he's living in and caught up in a state of domestic terror and terrorism where the colour of your card can make a difference and contribute to make you more acceptable to your fellow countrymen. There will still be those who won't read Kelman's You Have to be Careful... claiming that his use of swearing and Glaswegian dialect is inappropriate for "real" literature; then there will also be those who, trusting only boring best-sellers charts, won't even touch it. Finally, there will be those who will read You Have to be Careful in the Land of the Free and discover it was worthwhile. After all it's one of the bravest, funniest, most radical and challenging work of fiction out there right now.


Issue 26, September 2004

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