It was slow going finishing (Booker Prize winning) James Kelman’s You Have to be Careful in the Land of the Free.
I picked up this book after being intrigued by various reviews. In fact, I was so intrigued by reviews of this book that I accidentally purchased it twice. I gave my other copy to Dr J, which I may need to apoligize for later. It turns out that the reviews that I read only alluded to part of the story – the interesting parts. The book left me unsettled but thinking a lot about what was really going on. Quite honestly, I haven’t reached a firm opinion on it yet. A long read of indeterminate enjoyment deserves a long post. You’ve been warned…
This is the story: Jeremiah is a Scottish immigrant who has lived in the U.S. of A. for 12 years, and it is the day before he’s catching a flight to Scotland to visit his family. We find out that Jeremiah has traveled all over the country. He has an ex-wife (sorta) and a little girl. He has had a variety of jobs; none of them have been very fulfilling. His life has been a mess, he is filled with regret, and he more or less feels that he is returning home a failure. He spends his last night in America drinking in a small town and looking back on it all. The book is told from inside Jeremiah’s head, and narrative threads begin and end as they pop in and out of his thoughts. Since we are in his thoughts, the story is written in a Scottish “accent”. Here’s a sample from the beginning of the book:
…I was sick of myself and scunnered with my company, physically and mentally.
And why was I gaun hame! I didnay want to go hame. Yes I did…No I fucking
didnay. It was an obligation…Once I am deid the descendants will be discussing
departed ancestors: Who was that old shite that lived in the states? Which one?
Him that didnay come home to visit his poor auld maw! Aw that bastard!
is the obligation that I am talking about.
I have read a few Irvine Welsh books (Trainspotting, etc, which really take the Scottish vernacular to the next level), so I was OK with the Scottish. However, the story took some wee turns I wasnay fuckin ready for. That’s for sure.
The story that I didnay know I was getting is a paranoid fantasy (that’s what I’m calling it) that takes up much of the middle of the book. Jeremiah is certainly paranoid. Whenever he walks into a bar, he is sure that the regular Joe’s that look his way are all “pentagon fuckers” who are all bent on reporting him to some central authority that weeds out the “alien furnir bastard” types. In this parallel universe (or world of paranoid delusions) public facilities all have a blue sign on the wall that inform patrons that all suspected foreign-born persons will be required to supply their official documentation on demand. Jeremiah holds a “Red Card, Class III”, which is (as far as I know) a fictional lowest available alien status. Much of the discussion here is about Jeremiah looking to upgrade his alien status through various schemes and to avoid making the slip that may endanger his legal status in the country. For example, Jeremiah is afraid of the upcoming renewal of his driver’s license, because it will open him up to the direct scrutiny of a fickle bureaucracy.
Where the story gets strange is in the particulars of the bizarre security apparatus related to air travel. The September 11th terrorist attacks do not appear to have occured, or are not mentioned. The increased security at airports begins because of what is called the “persian bet”. I am not sure that I followed the particulars very well, but essentially the persian bet entails taking out an insurance policy for air travel, which in this book is apparently a more uncertain proposition than it is in the real world. The policies become a lottery ticket that if you win (you’re dead or seriously injured) and your family receives the jackpot. A huge industry evolves around the particulars of the various bets, etc. Lots of desperate characters begin to hang out at the airports participating in sub-lotteries just to win tickets to board a plane. Dubious detention centers begin to spring up at the airports as well. Jeremiah improbably gets a job as a security operative who is in charge of controlling the throngs of the desperate poor who are making the airport parking lots their home. His management structure seeks new and inventive ways to handle the poor, who are now making air travel unseemly. Jeremiah notes:
The legal team entered discussions with the politicans to discover or create a
ruling based on the nature of patriotism, whether it might be unlawful to bring
shame on the Uhmerican people. Surely the flaunting of one’s poverty in public
by tiny minorities caused undue suffering and stress t the vast majority of
folks who didnay have poverty, and was not inly socially unacceptable
but a breach of civil rights?
There’s lots in that vein about the myopia of the powerful. Kelman also targets some of the Orwellian doublespeak that has crept into politics:
These right-wing fascist think tanks were lcoated on campuses all over Uhmerica
disguised as centres of intellectual integrity, and it wouldnay have surprised
me if the Benefit Nigt was being organized to fund a new Weapons of Peace
Doubleplusgood, eh? I like a jab at right-wing fascists as much as the next guy. That got me thinking about the langauge being used in politics these days. Things are phrased in ways that limits the opposition that can be mounted against it. For example, let’s say you wanted to sponsor a bill that eliminates funding for school lunches for poor children. All you need to do is call it the The Every Child Gets a Nutrioinal Lunch Act. Who’s going to go on record opposing that? Anyway, I digress.
Our man Jeremiah is certainly yet another in a long line or unreliable narrators. He is drinking throughout most of the story, he may be delusional, and he throws out lines like, “Real life is reality. No necessarily. It is a debatable point…ma brains is twisted sir.” Alrighty then. After 400+ pages inside of Jeremiah’s head, it is a relief to finally get out.
Jeremiah does give some insight into what it might be like to be a post 9/11 immigrant, even if you’re a “pink alien furnir bastard” (it may be worse if you’re nay pink). The Americans that he speaks with, on the whole, are unsure of where exactly Scotland is. They ask him questions like “do you have e-mail in Scotland?”. One bright fella assumes that Jeremiah is sympathetic to his cause thinking that since Jeremiah is a member of a clan, then he must also be down with The Klan. Right?
The book raises other questions that are worth thinking about. The “big” question in this book with the paranoid fantasies, security forces, detentions, etc. is about the nature of freedom in the “land of the free”. Kelman is Scottish, so, you know, if he doesn’t like it he can lump it.
My feeling re: this book is that the persian bet/paranoia ramble in the middle may have been overplayed. We get it. The themes of the book could still have been addressed, more than adequately, by what was otherwise a straightforward and compelling story about a down on his heels immigrant who wasnay so bad as all that. And it was an an interesting narrative style, when all is said and done.
[Note to Dr J who received my extra copy of this book as a “prize”: I’d love for someone else to read this and get into a beer soaked discussion about it, say at the Flat Iron over burgers, but that is a tall order to ask. It would also be entirely reasonable and within rights to sell it off at a local used book shop and pocket the cash. If you want to go that route, teh Jake’s on Highland now buys books, and you can convert the book imeadiately into ice cream.]