This is a difficult book. By that, I do not mean that it is not worthwhile. That is precisely what it is: worthwhile. It is simply that James Kelman demands that you should stop and think about what he has written. This is a book about the confusion of human life. For instance, at the moment I know precisely what I mean by that last sentence. You, however, will probably think that I mean something else. And a third-party reading it will probably have another, completely separate idea of what “the confusion of human life” actually means. That is at the heart of these stories: the “noise” between what we think we have said and what other people think we have said. In these stories, that is especially the case between men and women.
These are also stories about what it is to be a man. The title story “That was a Shiver” sets this out for us in a bleak manner. Robert and Tracy, a Glasgow couple, are going out shopping in the Barras, the covered market, on a Sunday. They are not young any more, but they certainly are not old and decrepit. They go their separate ways, agreeing to meet for lunch. We follow Robert. He is quite comfortable, mooching around. Then you learn things about him. He does not like carrying bags in case he has to use his fists. He was in the army, where he became a champion boxer. Then he was in prison. He thinks of himself as a hard man, but realises he is not as hard as he was. He is fearful of young men because he is not as hard as he was. But he is defiant. He is willing to take on all comers. He may not be as articulate as a Shakespearean tragic hero, but the meaning of what he is saying cannot be doubted. He is belligerent. He swears a lot. He is in your face.
It should be said at this point that if you are uncomfortable with the use of “bad” language, then this is not the book for you. Robert talks in the language of ordinary working men in Glasgow. If you do not like it, then this is definitely not the book for you.
When I say that you cannot mistake his meaning, I mean that you cannot mistake the aggression. He is an alpha male facing down younger rivals. He is nostalgic for his younger self, and recognises that he is not the man that he was when he was younger. He is uncertain. To me, his aggression is a cover for his fear, but it might be that this behaviour has become engrained in him. It may be that he behaves like this because it is a survival strategy learned over the years. It may be both. Who knows? Certainly not me.
These stories have a theme of a man dealing with the contradictions and uncertainties of life. They deal with male insecurities whether they are about sex, status, strength, money – a man’s place in the world. They are about the nature of manhood. They are brilliant. You should read them.