Dirt Road by James Kelman
From the outset I am declaring my immense admiration for Kelman’s novel Dirt Road. I was so excited about it that my book group insisted that we make it our November book group read.
Dirt Road is a poignant and evocative coming of age story set in Scotland and the American deep south. Sixteen-year-old Murdo has recently lost his mother to cancer. His older sister, Eilidh had also died from the disease a few years before. Numb with grief, Murdo’s dad is trying to cope but struggles to articulate his feelings, so that father and son exist in a no-man’s-land of half-finished sentences and mutual misunderstanding.
Invited to visit relatives in America, Murdo and his dad embark on a journey which ultimately forces them to confront their shared grief and redraw the boundaries of their own changing relationship.
Whilst Murdo’s story is told primarily in third person restricted, Kelman blends second person and first-person strands through the narrative creating a convincing teenage voice for Murdo:
Even before a car he wanted a boat. With a boat ye could sail anywhere. Depending on the engine, or maybe the sails. Guys he knew had boats; their dads anyway, or uncles. It would have been great. His father didn’t bother. When ye take one back and forwards to yer work every morning, ye don’t want to be doing it in your spare time. As if travelling on a ferry was the same as sailing a boat. It was the kind of daft thing Dad said, because he couldn’t be bothered talking seriously about stuff.
For me, this short paragraph showcases everything that is admirable about Kelman’s writing. Using “ye” anchors Murdo’s interior voice to his native Scotland, whilst the Americanism (“Guys”) underlines his youthfulness. The way Kelman shows the progression of Murdo’s thoughts by repeating “or” (“Depending on the engine, or maybe the sails” and “their dads anyway, or uncles”) pulls the reader into Murdo’s head as his thoughts unfold, creating a freshness and immediacy to the writing. The way Murdo dismisses his dad’s views as “daft” coupled with his damning statement, “because he (Dad) couldn’t be bothered talking seriously about stuff” betrays Murdo’s frustration with his father, his desperation to talk about the loss of his mother and sister.
The Book Group admired Kelman’s skill in portraying the fluctuating emotions and preoccupations of the teenage Murdo – the way the author seeds Murdo’s love of music, for example, is trickled slowly through the narrative until we finally discover that he plays the accordion. Whilst the narrative is driven by Murdo, the book group also admired how effectively the author steers the reader to an understanding that Murdo is not necessarily the most reliable narrator. Through the chinks in Murdo’s narrative, we begin to get a picture of Dad. In a brilliant early scene, Murdo, who is silently berating his dad for fussing about their tickets, luggage and travel arrangements, discovers to his dismay that he has forgotten his phone. The pacing of the scene – Murdo checking his pockets and rucksack – and his father’s reaction to his son’s fruitless searching is darkly comic. Given that Murdo had promised to take his phone because his father hadn’t wanted to take his own, the reader begins to see a different side to Murdo’s personality. He is a young man who is prone to becoming distracted. This episode neatly paves the way for what happens later in the book.
Dirt Road is more than a coming of age story. With its additional themes of love and loss, its delicate examination of a strained family dynamic, not only between Murdo and his father but also between Murdo’s father and his American family, there are complex undercurrents running through this novel which reverberate like a fading musical note long after the final page is read.
Next time: The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker.