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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Monday, November 10, 2014

A culture not often given a voice in literature: James Kelman

A few of the odd stories in James Kelman's Greyhound for Breakfast are just eyebrow-raisers but most are really excellent, each a look at the lives of struggling people, many of them low-level hoods and gamblers, in contemporary (1980s) Glasgow - for most readers they will call to mind Dubliners, but of course the language is much more fierce and vulgar and Kelman, with 80 years of grace since Joyce showed the way, is more daring in his use of "stream of counsciousness." One excellent story in the vein of Dubliners is the piece about a "lad" who invites a buch of his friends over while parents are out for some games of poker; surprisingly, the parents and another couple come in early, a little high, and when the father sees that the son's been playing cards he invites the boys to sit with him for a few hands - in order to teach a "lesson" - as he gradually raises the stakes. The story gets pretty nasty. In contrast, one of the very short stories in this collection - some are only a page or only a paragraph - a guy recounts standing on a betting parlor and a man comes up, bums a cigarette, then lights it with his own gold lighter and indicates he's just there waiting for the bank to open so he can cash a check. Cigarette-giver feels burned. So many of the people, almost all of them men, in these stories are living day to day, hand to mouth, always bumming a last, half-crushed cigarette, looking for a way to win a little money at cards of the track, maybe not averse to some low-level crime - a very tough world, a set of characters not often given a voice in fiction, and here captured quite vividly. In some ways it's probably best not to read through the collection in sequence, as the tone is pretty much uniform and, with so many stories, it's hard to remember most of them specifically - but on the other hand the pieces do form a whole portrait of a culture, again as in Dubliners, with the whole becoming perhaps greater than the sum of its parts.

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