About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

#42 - Kieron Smith, Boy

After finishing my Kieron Smith, Boy by James Kelman (Harcourt, 2008), I'm reminded of one of the famous lines from Thoreau's Walden: "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." If the title character of Kelman's latest is any indication, the same can be said of the mass of boys, or at least those in an unremarkable Glasgow neighborhood some unspecified time in the not-too-distant past. The story is told in the first person from Kieron's perspective -- colloquialisms, bad grammar, and all. Guardian reviewer Michael Faber calls this voice "mercilessly authentic," and I agree; Kieron's frustrated, inarticulate fragments really do make other novels purportedly narrated by children seem false and glossy by comparison. Says Faber:

"Presumably, Kelman's point is that most boys' lives are not enlivened by dramatic adventures. There are no murders, no rescues, no life-changing encounters, no transcendent epiphanies: just the day-to-day tedium of ill-fitting socks, playground gossip, inconsequential squabbles. What saves underprivileged children from being crushed by their environment is the ability to transform the world with their own imaginative vision, but Kelman won't allow Kieron to overstep his linguistic limits, nor does he grant him much imagination."

Unfortunately, there's a downside to all this unremarkable authenticity; namely, it doesn't make for very interesting reading. The novel doesn't really have a plot, in the sense of a character with a problem that needs solving -- it just follows Kieron through a series of ordinary vignettes, from the time he's a wee lad of about 5 till he enters adolescence at 12 or 13. Aside from growing older, Kieron isn't really changed by the events of the book, nor does he provoke a change in the people or places around him. He resents his parents' blatant favoritism of his older brother, Matt. He slips off when he can to visit his grannie and granda, which becomes harder when his parents move to a new apartment or "scheme" in another part of the city. He gets into mid-level mischief with his pals (climbing ronepipes and walking about on the roof, "knocking" (stealing candy and "fags" (cigarettes)) from local shops, sneaking into football matches, and so on), and hopes his da doesn't catch and skelp (hit) him or give him a doing (beating). And so it goes. As Kieron would put it, "So that was you."

These everyday goings-on could be the stuff of a compelling portrait, if only we got to know the characters a bit better ... but we don't. Not only is Kieron's life utterly lacking in dramatic adventures or life-changing encounters, but so far as we know, it's wholly indistinguishable from those of his peers. He's not a scholar like his brother Matt, who seems to spend every waking moment swotting (studying) and insists on absolute quiet while he's doing it. He's a skilled climber. He's sullen and unimpressed when his parents insist on sending him to the posh school Matt attends, rather than the local one his friends attend. And that's about all the insight we're offered. Surely, even an unexceptional child has some personality traits that set him apart from others, and surely those closest to him would show some recognition and understanding of what those are ... but that doesn't seem to be the case here.

If there's a single theme to be teased out of the minutae of Kieron's unremarkable story, it's probably that no matter how caught up we might get in bettering ourselves and trying to present an impressive face to the world, it's all for naught; our fate is what it is, and all the posturing and pretending we do can't change it. Constant suspicion btween the Proddys (Protestants) and Papes (Catholics) is a given here, and Kieron sees no contradiction between having a few individual RC friends, but still not trusting them as a group. Recurring squabbles over whether Kieron's really a Catholic name, and whether our narrator's really a Protestant, bedevil him, to the extent of making him wonder if he was adopted:

"If really I was one. Maybe I was. I just did not know because they had not told me. My maw and my da got me as a Protestant and put me as a Protestant but all the time if I was not one, if I was a real Catholic. Kieron was for Catholics. People said it. I did not care. I would just do all the stuff. If it all was horrible. I did not care. Oh Kieron is a Pape's name. They said that. Oh, ye do not get Proddies called Kieron. So if it is Irish, you must be Irish. Oh you are a Pape. Well so I did not care."
To his mother's chagrin, his friends solve the name dilemma by dubbing him Smiddy ... but the autonomy this offers is fleeting, as these friends drift away when Kieron moves on to the good school, where there's no familiar sport to excel at, and no identity other than as Matt Smith's brother.

Eventually, Kieron does realize that what his name is and what his friends call him are unimportant. "So if really it was a Catholic name, if that is what he was saying, that was just daft and from being a child. People were all different names. In my school John and Michael and Jim and Brian were Catholics and Protestants, even a Joseph was a Protestant." Likewise, while watching a boxing match on TV, Matt becomes bold enough to confront the ridiculous nature of their father's bigotry: "I am just saying what if the white man is a Catholic? What if it is him and a darkie fighting together? ... Who would you want to win? ... Would ye want somebody to win? Do you want it to be a draw so they both lose?"

In the end, the resolution to both conflicts is unsatisfying. While we'd like to believe Kieron and Matt will grow up to be more tolerant than their parents and friends, we have no real reason to expect it, and in fact, it seems more likely that they'll just outgrown these naive bursts of insight. Much as we see when Kieron's father caught him climbing the ronepipe again and gave him the worst doing ever, this is not a place that looks kindly on those who try to climb too high or venture too far afield.

One arena where we see repeated skirmishes over identity and self-definition is that of language. Kieron's story is told the same way he speaks: in a thick, working-class Glaswegian dialect. We're told repeatedly that his mother and teachers don't approve: "You not yous, you not ye. Head, not heid. Dead not deid, instead not insteid. And not isnay and wasnay and doesnay. When I said doesnay my da said, Walt Doesnay, you do not." His beloved granda, however, doesn't seem to mind. "That was how my granda talked, wummin and didnay, um nay and will nay, he did not care. My maw said that, Oh do not talk like yer grandfather. Yes but he was not a snob." As a reader, I'll admit that I found Kieron's grammar and dialect distracting, although I did manage to figure out most of the words ... but then I wonder about what sort of language would make me comfortable, and how arrogant it is to expect Kieron or Kelman to sanitize his story for my convenience. Likewise, Kieron's puzzlement over proper language, bad words, and swearing -- he refuses to swear, though not consistently, and blue language of varying strengths is bleeped out throughout the text, e.g., "s***e," "b****y" -- is as annoying and confusing for the reader as it must be for the protagonist:

"People did not say f****d in my house. It was a bad word. But not a swear word. Bad words were not as bad as swear words but quite like it. Gary McNab thought f****e was a swear word. In his house they said pumped, his big brother too. Other ones said pumped. But that was a funny one because if it was a lassie, if a lassie got p****d, so it was swear word. Oh he p****d her, that was swearing.

"But if it was a smell, Oh he pumped, then it was not, it was just bad, but not too bad and ye could say it.

"... Ye got rude words as well. Some rude words were bad words. But some were not. ... There was some bad words I could say. T***e and k***h, b*m, d****e and c**k. But I never said them. The same with f****d. Out the house people said f****d but I did not. I just did not.

"There were other bad words I did not say even out the house. S***e, a**s, p***k and f***y."

Ultimately, Kieron concludes that what he's called, how he speaks, and who he thinks he is don't really make a difference:
"If it was yer Fate to go to Hell how did ye know? Maybe it came into yer head. God put it there. He said yer Fate so ye knew it without thinking. It was inside ye but ye never knew till after ye were dead. Ye woke up and ye were in Hell. Who could ye say it to? Oh here ye are. But ye were, and ye just looked about.

"But it was not fair. What if ye led a good life and did good deeds? How come it was Hell? It would be a big surprise. Except ye were a sinner.

"Everybody was a sinner. Ye went to hell because of it. So how come everybody did not go? Because it was no their Fate. Some people had bad Fates. Tough luck for them, they done good deeds but still went to Hell. They could not make up for it. Even if they done all good deeds, that was them.

"Other ones done evil deeds, so if they just got away with it. The Registration teacher talked about it. God's way is a mystery to us. If we could but fathom it but we are puny beings."
This was definitely a book that's better after the fact, when you mull it over for a while, than it was in the initial reading. Whether or not Kelman intended this, he offers some interesting if bleak ideas, without wrapping them in a tidy package or handing them over on grandma's china. My chief gripe, though, is that it took an awful lot of slogging to get there, and the plot and characters were nowhere near as compelling. Perhaps Kieron's supposed to be a generic Everyboy, but still ... after 400 pages, I'd like to care what becomes of him specifically more than I found myself doing.

Next up, probably pretty soon: Losing You, by Nicci French ... a parent's worst nightmare thriller that should be a welcome antidote to the grey tedium of Kieron. Just the thing for Mother's Day -- stay tuned.

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