A Friend Named Sammy

by scoobadoobabambamchooba

By lam le

How Late It Was, How Late,James Kelman’s fourth novel and a winner of the 1994 Booker Prize, is a story about a disempowered Glaswegian man named Sammy. Taking place in Glasgow, Scotland, Sammy is an ex-thief, with a Glaswegian dialect full of swear words, using the “f” word constantly in his speech. Living with his girlfriend, Helen, Sammy is unemployed, but in the past he had worked in construction and possibly as a thief; although his work as a thief is never revealed, Kelman implies Sammy’s knowledge and associations to the crime world. Sammy’s struggles begin from losing his sense of sight, after an altercation with the police. Sammy asks some tourists for money to get back home, but then realizes they were police officers. He is then told to go away, but decides to punch an officer before fleeing. In pursuit, the officers seize, beat up and send Sammy to jail. Subsequently, Sammy wakes up in prison, bruised from his beating, and realizes he is blind. To consider the value of Kelman’s work the reader is required to be interested in the present details of Sammy’s capture and his subsequent actions, instead of being concerned with his future outcome. Simply knowing the ending of the book is not enough to understand How Late It Was, How Late. Sammy is like a new friend; you befriend him or her based upon the present, instead of the past or future.

The genre of Sammy’s story is written in romance, that is, it follows the quest of a specific character. As a reader we are put into the sea of Sammy’s thoughts, which include all that he thinks of doing, what he actually does and how other people are interpreting his actions. As well, Kelman utilizes the stream of consciousness technique in first person and third person, while solely following the character of Sammy, which builds an intimate relationship between Sammy and the reader.

However, reading the story can be difficult because you are not sure how to read it: full of crude swearing, erratic punctuation, and narration from first then third person and of course the absence of chapters from the novel. The reader is beside Sammy throughout his nonstop 374 pages, ten day journey. As Sammy does not stop to shave his beard, the reader is prevented to find an end of a chapter to do likewise. On the other hand, the narration becomes easier to read, as you grow accustomed to the Glaswegian lingo and do not mind reading “f” this, “f” that, and “f” you. As a new modern form, How Late It Was unusual mechanisms can be refreshing to read. Those that do fancy a gritty novel may find Sammy’s constant smoking, use of swearing and explicit suggestions amusing even reviving.

There are plenty of muddled sub-stories that question the relevance of why Kelman has included certain events or actions. An uninterested reader may be annoyed at why Sammy is always smoking, drinking and stumbling over his words. Sammy refuses to accept help because he is set in his own way of dealing with his issues. So why does he continue to mislead everyone who attempts to help him? Sammy agrees to do something while he is fully aware that he will not proceed to what he has agreed to do. His character is deceitful and, to the other characters in the story, is someone who cannot be trusted. He wants to make a claim for his sight loss, but not against those that blinded him. Do we sympathize with Sammy or do we become irritated by his passiveness? On the other hand, Sammy’s independence can be well thought-of. He travels throughout Glasgow newly blind; he overcomes disability by continuing to be strong willed in his ways and does not blame other people for his circumstances. 

The story of Sammy is exactly that: “Sammy” Samuels, which is written from all the perspectives an individual character in a novel sees, hears and interprets things. For those who need a protagonist, antagonist, along with a happy ending, Sammy takes the reader along, while prevailing over all 374 pages.

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