An introverted yet adventurous 16-year-old, musical-minded Murdo is ready to fly what remains of the nest, following the successive losses of his mother and sister to a hereditary form of cancer. But dad Tom worries: Murdo is young, forgetful and has no experience of the ‘real world’.
The Scottish father and son take a trip to Murdo’s great-uncle in the Deep South. However, two weeks spent largely inside his aunt and uncle’s air-conditioned box gives Murdo a case of cabin fever. With the adults away, he ‘borrows’ a couple of hundred dollars and, at the invitation of some friends he made on the way, journeys to a small music festival in Louisiana. Equipped with little more than a couple of sandwiches and a pawnshop accordion, he makes it.
Without spoiling the ending too much, young Murdo is well on his way to becoming a ‘real musician’ by the closing pages, despite his father’s worries about where the next meal will come from. So as much as this is a coming-of-age story, part of Murdo’s maturation is in finding the courage to resist the comfort and safety of the nine-till-five, and cling to his childhood dream of being a musician.
Inspiring and heart-warming as this may be, and as deftly done as Kelman’s slow-burning psychological narrative is, for at least 90 per cent of its 300-and-something pages Dirt Road feels a little too pedestrian and everyday. It is not a page-turner that gets under your skin. Thanks to the unremarkable, day-to-day events Kelman describes, this is no more of a break from reality for the reader than it is for stir-crazy Murdo.
The language and structure can bog readers down too – think Cormac McCarthy’s simplicity and conservative use of punctuation, but with more stream-of-consciousness and Scots dialect. That is not to say Dirt Road is difficult to read, for Kelman wisely refrains from taking the Scottish vernacular much further than ‘ye’, ‘aye’ or ‘wasnae’ for the most part; only that every time one picks the book up there is a short period of adjustment to the offbeat writing-style.
There is much to be appreciated in Dirt Road – most of all the subtle finesse with which Kelman crafts a story, the little flourishes of literary brilliance that come from all his years of experience since his early-career Man Booker nomination and eventual win in 1994. But admire him as one may, there is simply not enough to this book.
Maybe these are just the perspectives of a younger reader, a product of our generation’s ever-shortening attention spans. Perhaps Kelman has found comfort and calm as he eases into old age. If so, it somehow proves both the Achilles heel and the saving grace of Dirt Road.
Dirt Road by James Kelman (Canongate, 2016)
Photo courtesy of Canongate