How Late It Was, How Late

by cristinamoody

by Cristina Moody

Shoes too small, no laces, without his trusty lone-star belt buckle, and in jail is how the down-and-out character of Sammy Samuels starts off and sets the pace for the rest of the novel How Late It Was, How Late by James Kelman. After having “peed the floor” of his jail cell Sammy finds himself blind and his grim situation never improves. He arrives home, from his alcohol-induced problem of a weekend, to a missing girlfriend and a subsequent speedy return to jail. These quick shifting events that surround Sammy don’t happen so quickly for the reader. Evidently sense of time goes out the window right along with his sense of sight. After the first few pages of fast-paced police slugfests we find Sammy “cannay see” and is struggling along, “quite slow really,” trying to get by with his new disability. The events of Sammy’s life are told with painstaking detail and digression as Sammy explains his “brains man they live a life of their own, ye’ve got nay fucking control, nayn at all” making a convoluted but interesting read.


Reader’s who are familiar with Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting will immediately find a parallel in the working-class Scottish setting and dialect of How Late It Was, How Late. What readers shouldn’t do is consider this book, by fellow Scot writer James Kelman, an unreadable phonetic mess; unlike Irvine Welsh’s novel this book doesn’t need a glossary of terms in the back to refer to. For the Welsh-unread this stream-of-consciousness written dialect is understandable due to its uncomplicated phonetics and repetitious nature. Once you know what a word means you’re sure to see it again, frequently, in the same sentence.

Repetition in words, sentences, lyrics are found throughout this book and is, in part, what sets these two otherwise similar novels apart. It allows Kelman to emerge as the successor in communicating the woes of plebeian Scottish culture by effectively creating a musically natured novel. Sammy’s blindness sets the novel into a rhythm as he ‘tumatumatumti tumatumatumti’’s ‘slap, slap, slap, slap, slap’’s, and ‘patacake patacake’’s his way around jail cells and city buildings. The metronome of Sammy’s “tapping the stick one way and then the other” is the beat on which to read lyrics such as “half as lonesome as the sound/ of the sleeping city sidewalks/ Sunday morning coming down” and “the sun didn’t shine/ no that sun it didn’t shine.” The musical weight of the book is obvious even before the story begins as the lyrics that are found in Kelman’s novel fill up a page and a half of acknowledgements from musical greats like Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson. As the back cover of the book says, How Late It Was, How Late is “a passionate, scintillating, brilliant song of a book” and worth the unique audible experience it offers to any reader.


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