Near the hut where I slept that night there was a brick-built barn. A tap fixed into the wall supplied drinking water. I drank then washed, collected a certain bag of possessions and departed swiftly, hoofing it along a narrow winding road banked by thick bushes and occasional small woods designed that the mansions and castles of superior persons be concealed from the gaze of the yokelled minionry of whom I was one, yea, yea, yea; three times wit’ the yea.
Some do one thing so well, they stretch out a career turning just the one trick. Think of Hugh Grant, and his portrayals of a fumbling, quietly horny but earnest member of the British upper crust. After Four Weddings and a Funeral, it seemed the whole world had been smitten by him. His stardust remained largely intact through a sequence of big hits, films wherein he played essentially the same character, but by the end, one was left wondering how the floppy-haired twat ever charmed you in the first place.
Robert De Niro is also known for playing very similar characters – in his case, that of the unhinged New Yorker. Unlike Grant however, each portrayal has been gold, with the shine somehow never rubbing off. (Subjective I know, but just run with it…) Reading That Was a Shiver, a collection of short stories by James Kelman, there was a similar sense of déjà vu across several of the stories, with a prototypical character emerging: an Irish or Scotsman, of a certain age, down on his luck, stoic, but also dangerously close to falling apart. Just like Grant and De Niro though, Kelman’s explorations of his chosen prototype and their world, is simply masterful. Human desire and all that is unrequited, in the widest possible sense – especially when paired with human frailty – is beautifully rendered. The longing, the sheer bloody hunger of the characters makes these stories buzz with life.
The question though is, given the similarity in much of the characterisation – the confined human locus being explored – was each incarnation, each story, as exciting as the one before? Put another way, is Kelman a Hugh Grant or a Robert De Niro? Well the good news is that he is much closer to the latter, with each spin somehow seeming fresh – although there is some small dampening effect. That said, there is modest variation – some of the characters are ‘sober’, markedly softer. But under the skin of the unhinged Celt is where Kelman truly comes into his own. Pedants, purists and maniacs trapped within the small, sealed box of their lives. Time and again, this is what Kelman puts on the table, and it’s bloody glorious.
Structurally too, these stories stand out. In this most modern of collections, there is work for the reader to do. Who are these characters? Exactly what is the situation, the dilemma to hand? Backstory and context are rarely completed, and sometimes missing entirely. But in each story, the author has carefully laid down nuggets of gold – but it’s up to the reader to then sift for them.
Any Cop?: There is no better chronicler of the unhinged Celt, than James Kelman. But as brilliant as many of these stories are individually, the whole is a smidge less than the sum of its (not inconsiderable) parts. A little wider roaming into the human jungle, would not have hurt though.