BOOKS & THE CULTURE Wrang This, Wrang That BY JEFF SEVERS You Have to Be Careful in the Land of the Free By James Kelman Harcourt 410 pages, $25 Fl rom de To cqueville 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 beautydrunk 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 noveltold entirely from bar stools in a snow-blown, unnamed Colorado town, as one drink before bed turns into eightbecomes 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 talk, card-playing, bets on the availability of moose steakseverything in this book has a semi-mythic quality, includ ing 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 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 he’ll be arrested “under Section 2 of the Extremist Outpourings legislation, my use of Alien English deemed to produce terror among true-born truebreeds!’ 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: IS] upreme destroyer of the planet; leader in world exploitation, 36 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 8/13/04
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