"The Good Times"

Sharp, staccato Scottish dialogue more macho than Mamet's fills James Kelman's new story collection.

Published July 6, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Sit down with a James Kelman book and you'll soon be speaking, thinking and slicing onions in Scottish. His voice is that vivid, that evocative. Kelman's gift for rendering Glaswegian dialogue with an audiotaped clarity is a brilliant parlor trick, but his dialect-heavy disciples (including Irvine Welsh and the Cockney John King) overlook his greatest strength. Kelman is a master at portraying the numb headaches afflicting morose, underwhelmed people: nervous laborers ("The Busconductor Hines"), bored schoolteachers ("A Disaffection"), hopeless castoffs (the Booker Prize-winning nightmare "How late it was, how late"). His new story collection, "The Good Times," intimately documents times that are anxious, tedious, pointless -- anything but good.

"The Good Times" isn't a collection of 20 stories so much as 20 fragments, 20 arguments, 20 brief interviews with hideous men. These aural folktales, seemingly overheard from the next table in the pub or through thin apartment walls, assume a participatory familiarity as Kelman isolates the throwaway thoughts and insignifica of our daily lives. We're conditioned to ignore our quotidian habits; Kelman stares them in the face.

What we get from all this is conversation: sharp, staccato, more masculine than Mamet. "The Good Times" includes several rowdy pub passages, tales with titles like "Every fucking time," but it's not without its sweet moments. The book's gentlest story, "The Norwest Reaches," depicts a giggling wife and a doting husband who's having so much fun he decides to neglect his job for the day. It's a moment to cherish, but in Kelman's world, fate rarely rewards such displays of love and spontaneity: Jobs -- even bad ones -- are bitter, fragile possessions. More typical of his take on human relations is "The Comfort," whose exasperated narrator must lie to a friend's wife before the two men hash things out over an utterly joyless pint.

The off-center centerpiece of "The Good Times" might be "Comic Cuts," a rambling, drunken Beckett play of a bull session, bleakly funny and frustrating for readers and participants alike. But there's equal tension in the book's brisk internal monologues. "The wey it can turn" spices post-coital drift with the narrator's stream of semi-consciousness -- UFOs, emigration to Australia, ex-girlfriends -- as he chats drowsily with his lover. And in the manic, three-page "sustenance sustenance," an overcaffeinated, self-interrupting speaker ruminates on vegetables with eerie self-absorption:

Thank god for onions. One can hear the cry. Slicing an onion is a relaxing occupation. Knives are correct for the job. The knife was correct for the job.

The leek, as a member of the onion family

But what about that garlic! People love garlic yet for me a let-down. These little efforts, they turn wrong too soon.

The minor tensions of these little efforts don't turn wrong too soon -- they just transpire without resolution. Kelman's stories constitute sudden moments, fractions of tales hurtling toward inconclusions. (The end of "Joe laughed": "I wasnay sure what I was gony do, no from now on, I maybe no even do nothing, it would just depend.") Kelman drowns out the end of each moment in "The Good Times" with stark silence, leaving us wondering, and in wonder.

By Todd Pruzan

Todd Pruzan is an associate editor at Print and McSweeney's.

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