Unflappable men who aspire to be in touch with their inner pugilist might consider a sojourn to the malcontent planet of “If It is Your Life,” the feisty and poetic new collection of short stories from the Booker Prize-winning Scottish writer James Kelman.
The 19 Scotsmen delineated with theatrical brio in his latest volume represent, it would seem, every stage of life’s passage (but for childhood and adolescence, which the author scoured to a captivating fare-thee-well in his novel “Kieron Smith, Boy”). These characters, who voice their plaints in Kelman’s signature first-person style, are conjoined by a gift for anger: of the bristling, boiling, bang-in-your-face variety. Regardless of age or education, they also exhibit a writer’s hyper-awareness of the strange injustice of their position, or, as one character parses it, “[t]he absurdity of existence as contained within one human frame.”
They have plenty of reason to be cross. They are angry at being sick or sacked from their jobs, angry at The System, at the loss of a lover or a limb. Or some god-awful combination of the above. The hapless protagonist of the curtain-raising “Tricky Times Ahead Pal” is spending his 51st month following a relationship bust-up having a leg amputated. Adding insult to injury, a clerk at the state hospital scissors off the wrong pants leg to refit his newly abbreviated frame, leaving the agitated man to wear his pants backwards.
The 42-year-old factory drudge newly severed from his night-shift job in “Talking About My Wife” at least has a spouse to sponge up the overflow of his ire. Talking at (as opposed to “about”) said wife, he rails at his boss and the body politic indifferent to the aspirations of working-class Joes like himself, whose worldliness (he references Sibelius and Breughel with easy familiarity) vastly outpaces their job horizons. “I want to get put out to graze like these old horses that win the Grand National, nay hustle and bustle, just chewing the cud,” says the defeated man to his wife, who responds with sighs. Kelman’s people resound with sighs: sighs of irritation, resignation, heard-it-all-before.
Kelman’s language draws heavily from the slang and conversational rhythms of his native Glasgow. The chatty, wayward propulsiveness of these monologue-leaning stories makes them catnip for an actor in search of audition material, although the unblushing embroidery of some characters would keep the bleep-machine at NPR’s “Selected Shorts” working overtime.
As with the laid-off factory worker, characters throughout “If It Is Your Life” reflect the activist author’s own frustrations with the policies of Great Britain’s governing parties and the passivity of its constituents. “Why did people not fight?” asks a hospitalized man in the exquisite “As If From Nowhere,” channeling rage at his potentially cancerous condition into impatience with fellow Scotsmen in the thrall of corrupt bureaucrats as well as solidarity with the tyrannized countrymen of the African-émigré nurse he quietly lusts after.
The characters’ bemused preoccupations with the opposite sex, specifically as they ponder the differences between women and men, fuels much of the collection’s bountiful humor. On occasion, when preoccupation turns into obsession, the author seems to succumb to the looping behavior of his protagonists. A dulling repetitiveness takes over the book’s title story, about a university student in the throes of his first full-throttle relationship, as well as “A Sour Mystery,” in which an embittered 36-year-old gives reluctant romantic counsel to an ex-lover he still craves. At such moments, Kelman would appear to be in close sympathy with the latter character when he says, “I preferred long journeys. I did not want to get to places.”
Far more satisfying is the Beckett-ian drifting-off of the ailing man who, benumbed by painkillers in the closing moments of “As If From Nowhere,” accepts his fate. “Here lieth I, sometime known as Old I, for whisper it: this indeed is I.” At day’s end, for Kelman’s characters as for us, a sigh can yield far more cathartic dividends than a tirade.