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    It was just a new problem.  He had to cope with it, that's all, that was all it was.  Every day was a
    f***ing problem.  And this was just a new yin.   So ye thought it out and then ye coped.  That was
    what a problem was, a thing ye thought out and then coped with, and ye pushed ahead; green fields
    round every corner, sunshine and blue skies, streets lined with apple trees and kids playing in the
    grass, the good auld authorities and the headman up there in his wee central office, good auld god
    with the white beard and the white robe, sitting there watching ye from above, the gentle wee smile,
    leading the children on.  That was fair enough.  It was just the now.  It was this minute here.  That
    was all; once ye got through it ye were past it.
        -James Kelman, How Late It Was, How Late

Such is the attitude which sustains Sammy, the Glaswegian ex-con who is the hero of this profane tale.  A good thing too, because as the novel opens he has more than your usual share of problems.  He's just woken from a two day drinking binge, of which he remembers little.  He precipitates a fight with some soldiers who administer a beating and wakes up blind.  He returns to his apartment to find his girlfriend Helen missing.  And the police bring him in for questioning about some of his criminal mates and about some of the activities, which he can't recall, of the past several days.  That's a lot to cope with.

Folks may well remember the furious controversy that was ignited when this book won the Booker Prize.  The chief objection was to it's quite startling use of foul language, with the "f" word appearing as many as 25 times on a page and the disconcertingly frequent use of a particular slang word for female genitalia.  In addition, even the "clean" language is a slang-ridden Glasgow patois; punctuation is erratic; chapters are nonexistent; and the entire story is told in a strange third person narrative with somewhat omniscient insight into Sammy's thoughts.  It is not an easy read, though it's also not that hard to get the hang of it.  Though much of Kelman's style seems to be technique for technique's sake, it does effectively carry the reader to an unfamiliar world and, though excessive, seems within the bounds of reason; it does not truly hinder the storytelling.  More difficult is the question of whether the story is worth telling.

Part of the difficulty in drawing ultimate judgments about Sammy and his story is that his weaknesses as a character are so close to his strengths.  On the one hand he is entirely to passive a player in his own life.  He can't remember much of the events leading up to his tragic situation.  He refuses to take much action either to repair the damage or to secure reparations.  Indeed, it seems possible that the blindness may be a psychosomatic reaction to stress, and not a physical ailment at all.  On the other hand, there's something undeniably heroic about the way he doesn't complain, doesn't scapegoat, and simply gets on with his life, largely taking care of himself.  In a strange sense, Sammy, though dirty, drunken, and down and out, retains many of the old fashioned virtues--self reliance, perseverance, independence, and generosity of spirit.

This is certainly not a book for everybody, the language alone will drive many away, but I ended up, almost in spite of myself, rooting for Sammy.  Between the self-blinding of the protagonist and the quest for Helen, it appears that Kelman was aiming at classic tragedy here, and the setting, subject, and language of the story have earned him comparisons to Joyce, Beckett, Camus, and the like.   I won't go so far as to say he succeeds in crafting a modern rival to Oedipus Rex, but as existentialist dramas go, it's better than most.


Grade: (B)


See also:

General Literature
James Kelman Links:

    -REVIEW: ofÊYou Have to Be Careful in the Land of the Free by James Kelman (Irvine Welsh, The Guardian)

Book-related and General Links:
    -Official James Kelman Website
    -EXCERPT : from How Late It Was, How Late (Bold Type)
    -STORY : Joe Laughed (James Kelman, Richmond Review)
    -STORY : Constellation by James Kelman (Bold Type)
    -AUDIO : James Kelman reads his stories  "Roofsliding" and "Learning the Story" (Salon)
    -PROFILE : James Kelman : Walking Among the Fires (Jayne Margetts, Between the Lines, The I au)
    -1994 Booker Prize : Winner: How Late It Was, How Late by James Kelman
    -James Kelman (1946 - )
    -James Kelman (James Thin)
    -ARTICLE : In Furor Over Prize, Novelist Speaks Up For His Language (SARAH LYALL, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of HOW LATE IT WAS, HOW LATE By James Kelman (Richard Bausch, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Denis Donoghue: Kicking the Air, NY Review of Books
               How Late it Was, How Late by James Kelman
               The Dead School by Patrick McCabe
               Walking the Dog and Other Stories by Bernard MacLaverty
    -REVIEW : Apr 25, 1991 Gordon A. Craig: 'Glesca Belongs to Me!', NY Review of Books
               The Busconductor Hines by James Kelman
               Greyhound for Breakfast by James Kelman
               A Disaffection by James Kelman
               Lean Tales by James Kelman, Agnes Owens, and Alasdair Gray
               The Burn by James Kelman
               Lanark: A Life in Four Books by Alasdair Gray
               Unlikely Stories, Mostly by Alasdair Gray
               The Fall of Kelvin Walker: A Fable of the Sixties by Alasdair Gray
               1982 Janine by Alasdair Gray
               McGrotty and Ludmilla or The Harbinger Report by Alasdair Gray
               Something Leather by Alasdair Gray
    -REVIEW : of A DISAFFECTION By James Kelman (Martin Kirby, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of GREYHOUND FOR BREAKFAST By James Kelman (Arnold Weinstein, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Busted Scotch Selected Stories. By James Kelman (Richard Burgin, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Busted Scotch ( Carolyn Kuebler, Rain Taxi)
    -REVIEW : of THE GOOD TIMES Stories. By James Kelman (David L. Ulin, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Good Times (Todd Pruzan, Salon)

    -Scottish Cultural and Arts Foundation