Disability makes hypocrites of us all. I would always hold the door open for someone in a wheelchair, but I’m not much inclined towards books, films or plays about the physically or mentally impaired. As Sammy Samuels, the hero of this novel, might say, ‘it doesnay bear thinking about’. Sammy is a vivid, gutsy and insistent character who would soon put you right on any issue. He’s also mildly psychopathic and a heavy-bevvy drinking hard man. When, after a drinking binge, he receives a retaliatory beating from ‘the sodjers’ and wakes up blind in a cell, it’s ‘no what ye would call panic-stations’. He makes you realise why most fictions about the disabled are merely heartbreaking and never enthralling: the protagonists are usually so pitiable.
Not Sammy. This astounding novel puts you inside a battered skull fizzing with frantic mental energy. At first Sammy’s world is painfully circumscribed. Sense impressions come through a post- booze-and-beating haze as he tries to recall the blank day that preceded his beating; a day that began with a row with his lover Helen, continued with a bit of luck on the horses, and then took off on a sequential pub binge. In custody, Sammy’s prime motive is to stay in control, to corral his quick temper with coruscating mantras of self-deprecation. Only slowly does his world expand again, barely at all through human contact and not until after he’s released by ‘the polis’.
The sound of a mind talking to itself soon becomes compulsive, although there’s an element of self-parody about it. Take this passage:
‘It was just a new problem. He had to cope with it, that’s all, that was all it was. Every day was a fucking problem. And this was a new yin. So ye thought it out and then ye coped. That was what a problem was, a thing ye thought out and then coped with . . .’
Sammy projects himself as a cartoon hard man fit for a Viz strip or a Billy Connolly sketch, but the pumping up of his courage in the face of what he sees as inevitable, almost deserved, hardship is all part of his charm. How else would a small-time ex-con mythologise himself except as an ‘oudaw’, the type featured in the Willie Nelson songs he loves so much? It’s the skill of Kelman’ s bitter wit that allows the narrative to slip in and out from first to third person, to give an authorial alternative and yet keep it consistently in his character’s vernacular.
Sammy’s filtering first steps are at the threshold of a deep and turbid experience. The further he goes in mapping his new world, the more the consequences of his missing day threaten to overwhelm him. He can’t tell (or he’s not telling himself why he’s in so much trouble, why the cops are asking him about political activities. After the first 100 or so pages of self-laceration he is as profoundly and as intimately exposed as a Raskolnikov or a Josef K and yet, although blind, he is somehow less helpless, less quantifiable.
James Kelman’s great achievement here is in building a paranoid’s dystopia out of a few conversations in the dark and one huge virtuoso stream of consciousness. So many narrative ideas and devices are made invisible by the flow of Sammy’s cussing and homespun theorising that predicting the outcome becomes a matter of hope rather than judgement. Strong emotions are revealed but the book is not in any way po-faced about disability. Kelman imagines the life of a newly blind person to be something like a silent slapstick movie but considerably grimmer and noisier, with plenty of scope for humour at the blind protagonist’s expense.
Rather than his vulnerability, it’s Sammy’s abiding romantic strain, combined with his determination to abide by a rebel ethos, that really win you over. He’s not really a responsible figure, and the only moral dilemma he faces is the basic one of survival, but his guts and determination make him a genuine hero worthy of a ballad to himself.