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Scotland's Burning, Look Yonder : GREYHOUND FOR BREAKFAST by James Kelman (Farrar, Straus & Girou x : $15.95; 230 pp.)

April 10, 1988|Nicholas Jenkins | Jenkins is an English short story writer who lives in New York. and

James Kelman is an exceptionally raw and, in his own way, ambitious writer. His stories move carefully and obsessively through demoralized Scottish lives, yet for all his narrow focus and use of jagged regional idioms, he is a prose stylist with international literary affiliations. Naturally, then, English reviewers have already gone down on their knees in front of "Greyhound for Breakfast." And well they might.

The Scots in this collection are tired, aggravated and, for the most part, without cash. They circle, self-absorbed and powerless, in the crumbling inner city labyrinths of a derelict economy. In Kelman's vision, a daily round of frustrating, dulling trivia structures existence, as though in the wake of great national reversals, there can be facts but no events of any consequence. This helpless suffering is extended to an extreme in the title story where Ronnie, after contemplating suicide, decides instead to go home to his wife: "he would just tell Babs something or other . . . what did it matter, it didn't . . . matter."

"Greyhound for Breakfast" is most impressive taken as a whole, rather than line-by-line or even item-by-item. Many of the "stories" here are actually just sketches or jottings, but in a world where life itself is seen as so chronically inconclusive, some narratives are allowed to remain stunted or unresolved. "When she stopped outside the post office he paused. In she went. But just as you were thinking, Aw aye, there he goes. . . . Naw; he didn't, he just walked on." Out of such randomness, though, the sequence builds to a powerfully sustained description of modern urban life.

The representation of the dispossessed in fiction has always raised issues of class, language and artistic control. These problems, especially for a realist writer like Kelman, center on the difficulty of creating a voice for the inarticulate which is neither loosely comic on the one hand nor implausible or inexpressive on the other. His solution is a spare, harsh, colloquial style that never allows much distance to open between the speech and thoughts of a character and a story's narrative tone. It is a technique derived, however muzzily, from Flaubert and Kafka. The character is freed from an ironic authorial shadow, and the author is restricted by the limits of his character's mind.

How far, though, can such unflinching "realism" take Kelman? The occasional wild slashes of humor and grotesquerie suggest a less restrained writer is lurking inside him. A few extended stories in this collection--like "The Band of Hope" and "The Wee Boy That Got Killed"--demonstrate a gift for delineation of the subtly altering balance in a situation. Kelman needs to develop people with more autonomy and "character" if his work is to deepen, and that process will probably involve some distancing from the world he has so faithfully presented here.

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