From de Tocqueville to Dickens to Nabokov, it’s always been true in American letters that visitors and immigrants can tell you more about this country than natives. Where lifelong residents see roadside pumps, Lolita’s beauty-drunk Humbert Humbert sees “the honest brightness of the gasoline paraphernalia against the splendid green of oaks.” Where locals see business as usual, the foreigner finds prejudices that evoke social theories and ribald satire. The explosion of interest in multicultural writing in the past 20 years has, in some ways, only confirmed an idea that European-borns long ago established in the U.S. canon: Founded as an idea more than as a people, America will take as its own any writer with a compelling new idea of what America has become.
Few in this outsider tradition, though, have examined the United States with as much venom and self-hate as Jeremiah Brown, the Scotland-born emigre of James Kelman’s new novel, You Have to Be Careful in the Land of the Free. “I am a registerrred fucking non-integratit cunt with the wrang fucking politics, the wrang philosophy of life man, the wrang this and the wrang that,” Jeremiah says in his scathing attack on America’s treatment of immigrants. No wonder over gas pumps here, and little hope or even desire for happy assimilation. Kelman’s dystopian “Uhmerka” is an enveloping system, promising Jeremiah protection from deportation if he works for a “Security” network that roots out seditious aliens like himself. That land of the free the title references turns out to be like a tree or mountain which, as the indecisive Jeremiah says, you climb up in search of solitude; but then “ye get to the top and ye breathe out: Aaah, freedom, and then ye fall off the fucker.”
Kelman, who lives in Glasgow, won the Booker Prize with 1994’s How Late It Was, How Late, centered on a suspect in a Kafkaesque Scottish legal system who dreamed of escaping to an America he’d come to know through Willie Nelson lyrics. In You Have to Be Careful, the main character, age 34, has made it to the U.S.—a resident alien for 12 years, fathering a child in New York, gambling heavily in Arizona, tending bar and trying to write a private-eye novel he seems to know will never get done. Rather than the open roads of country music, Jeremiah finds a fascistic nation of “pentagon fuckers” obsessed with security and nativism, complete with a system of color-coded identity cards he’s asked to produce in scene after scene. On the night the novel takes place, he’s left his Security job behind and bought a ticket to Scotland for tomorrow, for a visit that might turn permanent. The novel—told entirely from bar stools in a snow-blown, unnamed Colorado town, as one drink before bed turns into eight—becomes a meditation on the meaning of home for a man with a child here, a mother there, and friends, it seems, nowhere.
Kelman has spent considerable time in Austin, teaching writing at UT, and Texas, while it doesn’t serve as a setting here, must have provided him with the kinds of outsized characters and exaggerated tales that make up his “Uhmerka” (not to mention more direct access to Willie Nelson). Baseball enthusiasm, redneck talk, card-playing, bets on the availability of moose steaks—everything in this book has a semi-mythic quality, including the narrator. He’s a prodigal son of sorts, descended from a 19th-century American pioneer who presaged this immigrant odyssey through the West. The name is important too: “Jeremiah” because Kelman’s scathing attack on his adopted nation is a jeremiad, joining (if on a scale less epic than Moby Dick) that apocalyptic and doom-saying branch of American literature. And “Brown” because, in Kelman’s version of that doom, Jerry’s “pink” skin doesn’t mean he’s treated much better than the Muslims. A kilt, he insists, is no less a target than a turban.
Surely this book gained urgency for its writer from post-9/11, Ashcroftified times, as attested to by inventions like “Patriot Holding Centers” and (my favorite) Jeremiah’s joking suggestion he’ll be arrested “under Section 2 of the Extremist Outpourings legislation, my use of Alien English deemed to produce terror among true-born true-breeds.” But one gets the feeling Kelman hasn’t come lately at all to these resentments, that “alien” is for him more a daily pariah state than a legal status. As Jeremiah bluntly puts it, “Ye get sick of cunts staring at ye just because you speak different.”
And Jeremiah does speak different—delightfully so. Expect to read “Skallin” for Scotland, “uisghe” for whiskey, “didnay” for did not, and the aforementioned “cunt” for all those who get in Jeremiah’s way. Kelman writes by ear, taking manifold pleasure in not using the Queen’s English, or American English, or any English you are likely to have encountered outside a Glasgow bar. Here’s Jerry’s critique of a band: “They played blues, supposedly; it sounded mair like a group of Christian glee-club singers doing an advert for milk and apples.” Jerry on the inadequacy of American toilet paper: “[S]upreme destroyer of the planet; leader in world exploitation, in the destruction of all human endeavour… yet they couldnay wipe their dowp without sticking a finger through the paper, dear oh dear.” “Away back to scandinavia ya mad anarchist minnesota cunt!” he thinks he hears a passerby yell at him in the street—”or something similar, I couldnay quite hear.” If Harcourt brings out an audio version of this book, it may seem redundant, so audible is each funny turn in voice to the reader of Kelman’s prose.
On the other hand, the story—what there is of one—is much harder to follow. Kelman simply fails to give Jeremiah an adequate background against which to act. While his ambivalence over getting on that plane the next day lends the present scene some tension, far too much time is spent on flashbacks to Jeremiah’s life in New York with his ex, Yasmin, a blues singer who seems (it’s never quite made clear) to have kicked Jeremiah out for his neurotic way of doting on her. The timeline is rather murky, and a dissatisfying sense of deja vu sets in as the long dissolution of their love plays out: Haven’t I read about this particular barroom spat or tour mishap already? Why does Yasmin, with whom Jerry is clearly still obsessed, lack vividness for us readers? Why does the book itself seem trapped in its character’s claim that “I knew nothing about [women] and never would”? And hasn’t Jeremiah been sitting on that same bar stool an awfully long while, staring into a beer as this backstory gets told?
Kelman likes to swirl about freely with the mind’s associations, but too often intriguing threads arise without achieving clarity or full significance. Jeremiah, it’s revealed, sometimes goes so deep into reverie that he doesn’t know he’s speaking his inner thoughts aloud; yet Kelman never exploits that tic in the hilarious ways I imagine he could. Likewise, Jeremiah’s Security job is at an airport, controlling the many down-and-outs who want to offer themselves up in an odd system of bets placed on the fate of airline crash victims. I love Kelman’s use of this set-up to nail politicians who find “the ‘flaunting of one’s poverty in public’ by tiny minorities caused undue suffering and stress to the vast majority of folks who didnay have poverty.” But I wish there was more efficient exposition of how exactly the bets work, who profits from them, or why this airport gets so much attention in what Kelman implies is a rabid national security climate. The novel contains scenes that remind me of absurdist takes on policing in Kafka and Bulgakov, but, in both Jeremiah’s work and his own run-ins with the authorities, Kelman isn’t precise enough with the details to create the surreal but believable menace those writers perfected.
“Careful careful careful,” Jeremiah tells himself near the end, as he trudges drunkenly out of a bar and into knee-deep snow. You recognize then that the novel’s paranoia, from the title on down, has been, in addition to a desperate political stance, a social disease ruining all of Jerry’s relationships, wherever he chooses to live. This is the most touching aspect of Kelman’s novel—the closing-time melancholy that grips Jeremiah when he steps out for a smoke and thinks, “It was time to stop this way of living aw the gether.” Is “Uhmerka” to blame? Yes, but Jeremiah’s built his politics from his hot-blooded personality, and his rage centers mostly, in the elliptical ending, on himself. “Nothing personal,” several of his interrogators insist when they ask to see his identity card, and Jeremiah’s response summarizes the exile, surveillance, and failed emotions that make up Kelman’s scalding idea of what America has become, for both the pink and the brown: “It’s always personal for me.”
Jeff Severs, a recent graduate of UT’s Michener Center for Writers, is working on a novel.