“You’ve got to be careful in the land of the free” by James Kelman

It’s easy to leave home.To leave the place of your birth. To run from it, and start again.

It’s easy to leave behind family, history, expectations, constraints, class, poverty, all those restrictions on your life laid out for you from the start.

Far better to go. To start afresh in some place where they don’t know you. Some place where expectations don’t exist, where history, family, constraints and all the rest, are obstacles that only rise up to meet you if you allow them to.

Far better to go and make of this life something that’s your own. Something new.

That’s the dream. That’s the idea. That’s America.

Perhaps that’s why Jeremiah Brown left home? Perhaps he was chasing this dream, this vision of America, this wide-open prospect of a place where we can unfurl, transform, become what we will?

Or perhaps, as he claims, you sometimes need to leave home to find your roots?

Perhaps he really was just curious to follow in the footsteps of his ancestor, that other Jeremiah, the namesake forebear who went prospecting for gold, and who ominously ended up, lost and side-tracked, a religious zealout in Utah.

In the end though you only ever leave for two reasons -to flee and to dream. And if leaving is easy, going back is nigh on impossible.

So we spend the night with Jeremiah, ostensibly his last night in “Uhmerika” as he ponders the imponderables. The whys and wherefores of the things we do.

We follow his stream of consciousness as he drinks another drink and allows his memories to be prompted by the town and the bar in which he finds himself, this last night, before he returns home.

We listen to his tales of love and longing, dreams and alientation. Of his beautiful child and the family back home he no longer communicates with.

With every passing hour, every beer supped, we ponder the life of an “unassimilatit furnir” living at the edge of the American dream. Of a man, no closer to escaping restrictions here, in the land of the free, than he was back home.

If anything, the shattering of the dream, makes the alienation all the harder to understand, the harder to bear, the harder to explain.

It is an alienation that leads to a sense of failure. That results in those unanswered letters home, those phonecalls never made. An alienation and failure that causes everything to collapse.

Even love.

Jeremiah has lost. He has lost it all. The love, the home, the daughter, the family, the sense of belonging. Gone. The gamble didn’t pay off.

He has lost it through the things he said, the things he did. Lost it because of the things he never said, the things he never did.

So why should we feel anything for him? Why should he matter to us?

Because, in the end, Kelman makes us care. He always makes us care.

This is the kind of book that, in the hands of a lesser writer, would fail spectacularly. There are grand themes being played out here. Themes of love, failure, belonging, identity. Themes that would overcome many a writer and cause them to lapse into self-indulgent, overly self-conscious prose.

Not so James Kelman.

Not once does he lapse into sentimentality or the clever, cold, cynical bitterness that other writers may revert to in an effort to impress.

Kelman simply tells it like it is. And yes, it is hard to read, yes it is difficult to accept, yes it is a hard tale to follow. But it is real. It is worth it.

James Kelman writes about who we are – no holds barred. And for all the harshness of that tale, for all that we way squirm in recongition at his insights, it is his humanity that we ultimately acknowledge and enjoy.

Celebrate this book. It deserves it.

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