A comedy of errors without much to laugh about, 1994’s How Late It Was, How Late was a second-hand purchase of mine bought on a whim. It stuck out in the Scottish Literature section like a sore thumb as the title rang the bells of familiarity in my head. Counting out my loose change to pay, the wise-looking man on the till informed me it was one of his favourite books, and little was I to know that it would soon become one of mine.
Written by Glaswegian author James Kelman, the novel ruffled a fair few feathers when it clinched the Booker prize of that year. With its thick Govan vernacular and hefty abundance of ‘fucks’ (apparently – and believably – well over 4000 across its 374 pages according to one count), the book was variously dismissed as ‘literary vandalism’ and a ‘disgrace’ on its release. Even those who weren’t quite so dismissive saw it as totally undeserving of Britain’s most esteemed literary award.
Thankfully, I went into this book blind to all the controversy and open to what it had to say; and just as well, because this book makes no concessions to practically anybody who wants to read it. It takes the form of a stream-of-consciousness novel with a total absence of chapters, following the trials and tribulations (mostly just tribulations) of its anti-hero Sammy, a down-on-his-luck alcoholic who’s found himself on the wrong side of the law. Written in Scots, if you do embark on a journey through the story’s pages it does take about a couple dozen before you fully settle into the written form of a lingo that is usually spoken aloud.
We’re all fairly well acquainted with the dreaded Fear that makes its appearance the morning after, but a rare few could lay claim to having quite a bad one as our Sammy. The story begins as he wakes up street level, relieved of his wallet and new pair of shoes, with no clue as to how he found himself there or what he got up to on his latest big bender. It then gets worse. He faintly remembers a big row with his partner Helen though can’t mind what it was about, and an attempt to tap some spare change for the bus home off two officers ends up in a nasty dust up and with Sammy thrown in the jail.
Sammy’s no stranger to the Glasgow constabulary however, so when he reports the next morning to the officers on duty that he can’t see a thing, they think he’s on the wind up. Blind as a bat and with no-one to call, he gets booted out on to the streets as a helpless man. With not a penny to his name and bugger all idea where he is, the reader follows Sammy as he makes his odyssey across Glasgow to get back to Helen without the use of his eyes.
The narrative flows lawlessly through first, second and third person, always through the perspective of our sightless protagonist. As the reader you are invited to share in the dread and the total distrust of others that Sammy feels as he tries to find his way home as well as make sense of what has happened. He crosses paths with faceless strangers and seedy Samaritans, and you experience every twist and turn through Sammy’s manic, disoriented thoughts. Kelman makes a nod to the works of Kafka as Sammy tries to blindly negotiate a cold bureaucracy, grasping at the dark in a bid for justice against the officers who done him in. I can’t say I’ve ever come across a story in any other form that so completely welds you to the fate of a single person. Here, Kelman has conjured up such a vivid character in Sammy that it’s almost difficult to believe that he is a work of fiction.
It’s a funny read at points, and some of the predicaments Sammy inevitably winds up in are hilarious in their jet-black humour, but in some respects How Late It Was, How Late is a bleak, bleak tale. I think it’s fair to say that every Scottish town and city has its share of Sammys: forgotten, looked-down-upon people, whose resentment for the world is thrown back at them in turn. It becomes quite clear as you read through his unfettered thoughts that behind Sammy’s apathy lies an unresolved pain that goes beyond his immediate disability. He gets himself into bother with uncaring people that don’t extend any understanding towards his situation, and that pain of his hardens and lashes out at the unfairness of it all.
It’s not a conventional book to be considered a modern classic; there aren’t seemingly any apparent themes or symbolism, the syntax sometimes confuses and the plot frustrates you in its refusal to bend to your expectation. Yet Kelman has created something unique in this book. It reads, sounds and feels like a direct descendent of that renowned Scottish tradition of oral storytelling. He has captured the flavour of that elusive, magic experience of being roped into some elaborate story by some guy you just met that looks like he has a few to tell. The book at once feels like a story about Sammy, by Sammy, spoken aloud to you over a stiff drink. This book is a powerful wee celebration of that most brilliant aspect of Scottish culture, storytelling, and out of it is fashioned a character who feels like he possesses a real soul.
Words by Charlie Forbes