Comic Irony Spoken In the Vernacular

JAMES KELMAN'S ``How Late It Was, How Late,'' winner of Britain's 1994 Booker Prize, has been the focus of a dither that seems almost a coda to the work itself, part and parcel of its extraordinary and bleakly comic accomplishment.

The central character, Sammy, is a recently blinded, unemployed Scottish ex-con with a taste for drink. The story is pursued in his voice, a Glaswegian vernacular of the underclass: combative and bristling with four-letter expletives, but beautifully, even poetically rendered as a language in its own right. The narrative proceeds in the second and third person, a technique that dramatizes Sammy's sense of mortified antagonism to the world. It is this forceful language and the main character's oddly disinterested willfulness that have ruffled the critics.

Sammy is not the romantic renegade he might be if he showed up in an American novel, and he is no Dionysian. In fact, he's rather austere. He believes in decency and a fair shake and would like to recapture the run of his own life. But he is undeniably a sinner. He has strayed into larceny and spent time in prison. He has just come off a bender, waking up in the weeds wearing another man's shoes. And scarcely five pages into the book, he has lashed out at a group of policemen, an act of folly that leads to his being beaten, jailed, and to the loss of his sight.

Sammy has enough trouble managing the consequences of his own conscious actions - which he accepts - without having to deal with the bureaucratic caprice of the state. The scenes in which he attempts to set his predicament before the medical and relief authorities are masterpieces of comic irony.

Everywhere, he is thrown into necessary relations with people who assume that the point of life is prudent self-interest. But this, for Sammy, is precisely not the point of life. He runs into an officious, small-time operator named Ally, who hopes to represent Sammy's medical case to the authorities and in return get a good slice of the welfare payments. ``Look eh pardon me;'' Ally adjures Sammy, ``just one thing, ye're gony have to watch yer language; sorry; but every second word's [expletive]. If ye listen to me ye'll see I try to keep an eye on the auld words....

``I'm no meaning nothing;'' Ally goes on to explain, ``it's just it's a good habit to get into for official purposes.''

``Official purposes,'' however, are exactly what Sammy, and Kelman's book, for that matter, are constitutionally unsuited for. Both seem obnoxious and inappropriate. Sammy is certainly difficult and, perhaps, downright impossible. His girlfriend, who has left him, clearly thought so.

The problem, of course, is that many literary critics have been oblivious to the novel's devastating irony, to its invisible torque. In this way, the book's scandalized reception is yet another instance of what Sammy perceives to be life's overarching problem: misunderstanding.

But at bottom, Sammy has an instinct for dignity and decorum. Kelman succeeds brilliantly in showing this through Sammy's painstaking expedients and miniature triumphs in coping with the predicament of being blind. Still, in blindness as in life, he has made some wrong turns.

And those who cannot bear him will be glad to know that, at this fine novel's finish, he simply ducks into a cab: ``the door slammed shut and that was him, out of sight.''

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