cover image How Late It Was, How Late

How Late It Was, How Late

James Kelman. W. W. Norton & Company, $21 (0pp) ISBN 978-0-393-03817-0

Kelman is a Scottish novelist and essayist scarcely known in the U.S., though the present book caused a stir in Britain when it won the prestigious Booker Prize (apparently as a compromise choice) and was roundly abused by one of the judges as ``inaccessible.'' It isnay that bad. Once past that artily inappropriate title, it's the harsh, gritty story of Samuels, a Glaswegian drifter and petty crook who has been in and out of jail. As the book opens, he awakens on a Sunday morning in an alley after a two-day binge of which he has little memory. He gets in a scrap with the police, and when he next comes to, he's in jail-and has lost his eyesight. The book is an overextended stream-of-consciousness in which Sammy tries to come to terms with his blindness, get some sort of medical assistance, find out where his girlfriend disappeared to and fend off the police, who believe he is close to a buddy they suspect of political terrorism. Most of Sammy's thoughts, numbingly obscene and repetitious as they are, seem authentic (though there are a few unlikely choices of words for one so determinedly unliterary). He has a combination of dour courage and suspicion that rings true, and some of the dialogue in scenes with various state authorities, cops and later his teenage son, are finely wrought, tense and darkly funny. But it seems unlikely many American readers would want to struggle with the alien idiom for these rather meager rewards. (Dec.)