book review

A grieving, Scottish Holden Caulfield dropped into Alabama

Nasser Nasser/ap file photo

Modernist stream of consciousness lives on in the brilliant “Dirt Road,’’ Booker Prize-winning Scottish author James Kelman’s latest novel. Like a 21st-century, Scottish, working-class, Leopold Bloomian Holden Caulfield, 16-year-old Murdo Macdonald ruminates on boats, sounds, birds, insects, cells, girls, music, work, race, life, and death in a narrative as epic as it is quotidian, an adolescent Hero’s Journey through grief and America.

Murdo’s story begins in loss. His mother has died of a genetic cancer that strikes only females and seven years earlier killed his older sister, whom he still desperately misses. He and his father are leaving Scotland for a two-week vacation with family in Alabama. To pile on injury and insult, he realizes on the way to the airport that he has left his phone behind. Stripped of home, communication, and music, Murdo is left with his thoughts and his taciturn father: “That was him now, nothing. What did he have? Nothing.”

Quintessentially adolescent, Murdo is his own best cheerleader and worst enemy. Alternately enthusiastic and morose, often within sentences, he one minute finds things “brilliant,” “special,” and “great, just bloody great” (no irony there, there’s not an ironic bone in Murdo’s body), while minutes later, everything, including himself, is “stupid and daft.”


His relationship with his father is one of Murdo’s struggles. Trapped together in grief, but unable to communicate – “we dont talk that much really” — the two painfully try to reach each other and fail, tripped up by the yawning gap between Murdo’s desire to control his own life and his father’s sense of propriety as well as, sadly, their shared wish to make the other happy.

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Murdo is clearest about music: “Some folk needed music. Murdo was one of them. Music keeps ye sane. People said that and it was true. More true was it kept ye safe. But he needed to play. Listening was good but wasnt enough.” But music also figures in the father-son conflict, at least so Murdo believes: “The truth is Dad knew nothing about music. So nothing about Murdo.”

Music soon becomes the engine of the novel’s plot. The pair’s frugal trip to Alabama involves a ferry, train, two planes, and several buses. At a bus station in Jackson, Miss., they miss their bus when Murdo, out for a walk, becomes transfixed by instruments in a pawnshop window. On another walk the next morning (walking is one way Murdo seeks escape, along with fantasizing about boats, tracing routes in a road atlas, and retreating to his basement room), he encounters Queen Monzee-ay, a renowned elderly zydeco accordion player jamming with her beautiful granddaughter, Sarah.

The descriptions of people playing music together are some of the most beautiful and evocative passages in “Dirt Road.’’ When Queen Monzee-ay invites Murdo to join her, he plays for the first time since his mother died. Zydeco is a revelation — “It was a new kind of music for Murdo and exciting how it rocked along, that humour too, and funky, just brilliant for playing and for dancing” — and playing is a tonic — “It was just the best, really, for Murdo it was the best fun and he hadnt had it for a long time, for a long long time.” Queen Monzee-ay invites him to play a gig with her in Louisiana, and his grail search is set.

In Alabama, the comforting warmth of Uncle John and Aunt Maureen allows Murdo and his father to relax, and Murdo slowly gets back his music, listening to Queen Monzee-ay’s zydeco CDs on an old beat box he finds in the basement and playing at a Scottish gathering. But suburban lethargy and his father’s passivity frustrate him, and he remains fixated on getting to Louisiana.


Through Murdo’s eyes, contemporary America — “A different world. That was America. Ye thought ye knew it from the movies but ye didnt” — appears defamiliarized yet spot on: our sidewalk-less suburbs and seedy bus stations; convenience-store food and mall walking; weather obsession, security state, guns, and racism. But if both Kelman, a lifelong radical, and his teenage protagonist are skeptical of our politics (the Scottish gathering is threaded with white supremacy), they embrace our music as a powerful unifying force, transcending and bringing together races and cultures.

Murdo can never escape the loss of his sister and mother; he can only assuage them. One facet of “Dirt Road’s’’ genius is that it recognizes this, offering neither pat catharsis nor improbably definitive resolution. Yet Murdo and his father both move forward in a final move that is unexpected, if a bit fantastic, but perfectly in line with this beautiful novel.


By James Kelman

Catapult, 407 pp., paperback, $16.95

Rebecca Steinitz is the author of “Time, Space, and Gender in the Nineteenth-Century British Diary.’’