James Kelman’s latest novel Keiron Smith, Boy, tells the tale of the primary school years of its likeable narrator. Though set in the sixties, the book has a timeless feel, uncluttered by pop culture references so beloved of the post-modern novel. We are moved by Kerion’s humanity as he navigates the hazards of life; lack of love, poverty, bigotry, sexuality, and his own reckless nature, manifesting itself in a desire to scale buildings. It’s a book full of the wonder of growing up, but there is an everyday anxiety and uncertainty in Keiron’s world. This menacing undercurrent presents a true picture of childhood, now distorted through its commodification by our entertainment industry.
Keiron is drawn with an accuracy rare in modern fiction, emerging as a far more complex character than the lovable rogue archetype. Gaining respect for his climbing ability and his skill in manufacturing hatchets, he debates the pros and cons of carrying a knife, continually speculating on the circumstances under which his own potential violence could be deployed, and what its limits might be. The great power of the book is that you can see every possibility for Keiron, from murderer to victim, and a million shades of everyday inbetween. In this way Kelman renders our fate both arbitary and brimming with choice.
We are totally immersed in Keiron’s point of view and the sense of the otherness of the adult world from the child’s eyes is captured with intense skill. Keiron’s father is a merchant seaman who can’t settle in civy street, and both his parents, especially his aspirational mother, have invested their energies in Matt, his swotty older brother. So fitting in is hard for Keiron. When he undertakes that great Scottish working-class experience, the move from inner city tenement to peripheral housing scheme, he is isolated from his pals and his loving grandparents. He makes new friends, but is then sent to his brother’s secondary, the ‘snobby school,’ a trainride away. And because of his surname, he believes that he might be a ‘pape’.
The20novel uses language in a fascinating way. Encouraged to speak formally by their mother (whom we sense has married beneath her), this is Keiron and his brother Matt having an argument about room-sharing protocol:
Oh but I cannot do it right if you are wanting the light off and I have to be quiet.
Well I do not care if I need to go to sleep.
Oh you are just a blooming pest.
In Keiron’s precise but thoughtful narrative, astrix’s neutralise the ‘swear’ words. Innocous terms like s**y (sexy) receive the same treatment as the usual suspects. I doubt it would be James Kelman’s intention to do so, but this device mocks the chronic infantilism of the critics who attacked the volume of expletives deployed in his Booker Prize Winning novel How Late It was, How Late. And there is little doubt that the novel will compared to another Booker winner, Roddy Doyle’s excellent Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha. Wheras that book told a very human story with a devastating uppercut, the device of the child narrator might mask that Keiron Smith, Boy is one of Kelman’s most ambitious and overtly political novels.
The book is really about our socialisation and control, specifically through language, culture and information. This is fertile territory for Kelman, and his deft, understated style is well deployed to often devastating pay-off. In the past he’s generally chosen to imbue his characters with an intrinsic nobility that makes them rise above taking refuge in the divisive personal politics of racism and misogyny. Working within the child’s world, in this novel James Kelman allows Keiron to challenge and be challenged by these assumptions, and in doing so explores the nature of their transmission to great effect.
A central issue of the book is sectarianism, and it’s heartening to see a writer of James Kelman’s stature engage with Scotland’s long-standing embarrassment, and in such a elavated and cliché-free way. The apartheid of separate schooling, the imperialistic supermacist assumptions of Orange culture, the influence of wealthy football clubs in sustaining this divide, are all rendered vivid and stark through the eyes of Keiron.
Everything becomes focused along sectarian lines, to often heartbreaking and hilarious effect, as when Matt and his father cross swords over a boxing match. Keiron himself believes that the beautiful older girl he has a devastating first crush on will not marry him because of their religious differences. We see, in his lively imagination, the way religion and God are used to terrorise and control this boy, and by extension, the rest of us. By forcing us to rethink childhood, (and therefore adulthood), Keiron Smith, Boy, is a magnificent and important novel, and might just be worthy of being considered James Kelman’s greatest achievement to date.
Originally featured in the Financial Times.