Rating: 4 stars
I decided to buy this after Weezelle mentioned it in her review of Walking The Lights. I put it onto my TBR selection for The Reader’s Room Winter Challenge, and this week it came up.
I loved it from the first page. My brother in law is from just outside Glasgow. He’s not as broad as Sammy, the main character in Kelman’s cautionary tale of life on the blag in Glasgow, but the rhythms of his speech are similar, so I felt at home with the narrative style. The book is a single chapter, a stream of consciousness chronicling of Sammy’s fall one weekend from being a regular petty criminal to becoming a blind petty criminal.
It’s like an extended episode of Rab C Nesbitt. Sammy describes his life in hilarious detail, from his relationship with Auld Helen to the scrapes he gets into with his fellow reprobates. He takes his beating by the police and subsequent loss of sight at the start of the book in his stride at first, working out the ways in which his blindness might be to his advantage.
He copes surprisingly well with his sudden blindness. He navigates the streets competently. He fashions himself a stick. He negotiates using the lift in his block of flats. He catches a bus to the DSS Hospital. I started to wonder whether he was faking the blindness.
Sammy trips himself up mentally while filing a claim for additional benefits, because he doesn’t have a plan. He lets his mouth run away. He lets the benefit officer’s questions anger him and starts to contradict himself, claiming that he can’t remember the facts.
Generally, Sammy is excellent company. His thoughts wander all over the place. He’s a curious mix of worried about life and completely not bothered by it. He starts turning a thought over and then decides it’s not worth the bother. Sentences often hang because he’s onto the next thought.
Although Sammy isn’t the same kind of man as Daniel Blake, being more on the side of screwing the system for what he can get and avoiding work for as long as possible, elements of his experiences in the benefits system made me think of Ken Loach’s recent film. The bureaucracy and the need to be two steps ahead of officialdom in order to secure what you need. It’s like a war. The needy strategising to make the system work in their favour, the bureaucrats strategising to stop them.
As time goes on, Sammy starts to lose his confidence in things turning out okay. Helen hasn’t been back to the flat for a week. He recalls the argument they had the day before his current troubles began. And then he ends up being lifted by the police again, and the missing pieces from his disastrous weekend start to slot into place. Pieces of his past also slot into place, as other characters add their perspective to the narrative. We learn that Sammy isn’t the confident, laid back man he tries to paint himself as. We discover that his petty criminal life might not be as petty as he claims. We start to understand that Sammy might not be a reliable narrator. But neither might the other characters. The way the criminal justice system works is underpinned by unreliable evidence and manipulation of facts. The police, the legal representatives, the medical profession, the social services and the sarcastically named ‘customers’ like Sammy all have their role to play in skewing the facts to twist the result in their favour.
I liked Sammy. I liked his breeziness. I wanted things to work out for him. Even though I knew I shouldn’t, morally speaking. Some people are dealt a duff hand in life, though, through the circumstance of their birth. To be poor and working class, from a dysfunctional family, with limited opportunities to escape the grind of where you come from, I imagine it isn’t so easy to resist the criminal route. The struggle to be seen as deserving of opportunity, the having to work extra hard to improve your life when the odds are stacked against you, and how that often results in repeated patterns of behaviour because that’s all you’ve ever known and it’s all that society projects onto you. The expectation that you’re going to fail and turn to crime. All of that background to Sammy’s story gave me an amount of sympathy for the choices he made. Perhaps if he’d come across as a bastard, out to harm other people, malicious in his criminality, I’d have felt differently.