Rating 3 stars
First published in 1985, A Chancer is James Kelman’s second novel. It’s an examination of working class Glasgow life through the eyes of Tammas, a young man of twenty.
We meet Tammas at the end of an unproductive factory night shift, playing cards and winning money from a co-worker that the co-worker doesn’t have. The factory is short on orders and it looks like redundancies are imminent.
Kelman writes in the Glaswegian dialect, bringing authenticity to the fictional lives of his characters. It’s a working class story, full of the grind of the working week, the anticipation of weekend time off, the worries about making ends meet, the reliance on cadging off friends or family or resorting to a bet on the horses or a game of cards to get some extra money in your pocket.
Kelman doesn’t describe the city but instead conjures it through the conversations of Tammas and his workmates, his friends, his sister and girlfriend and through Tammas’s demeanour as he moves through each day. It called back to my mind how drab my home town and our nearest city were in the late 70s and early 80s. We still had fun, but in a grainy way, somehow.
Tammas is restless for money. Bored at work, he pins his hopes on card games with his workmates and visits to the bookie’s. He blots out the daily grind in the pub, preferring a pint to a night at the pictures with his girlfriend. He plays football with a local amateur team. He’s a typical working class lad.
Kelman doesn’t structure the novel with chapters. The narrative is episodic. He shows you a glimpse of what Tammas is up to then moves on to another time and place with no exposition on what has happened in between. It seemed to me to be a book version of the classic kitchen sink dramas of the 1960s.
Tammas’s gambling made me feel tense. I’m not a gambler by either nature or upbringing. Kelman gets across the tension in the card room at the club Tammas goes to with one of his friends. It’s the sort of tension that makes me feel anxious. I didn’t enjoy reading any of the episodes involving gambling because I don’t understand why someone who struggles to make ends meet would risk money on the chance they might make more, when it’s more likely that they’ll lose. Tammas’s visits to the bookie’s and the tote at the race tracks were simply examples of the life Tammas leads. The card games, though, made my stomach knot with anxiety.
As Tammas becomes increasingly addicted to the belief that he can beat the odds, he also begins to alienate his friends and family. From quitting work to skipping out on a mates’ trip to Blackpool, from cadging and stealing from his family to dodging his oldest friend’s engagement party, his lies and subterfuge grow. He’s a loner, adrift from everyone else, unable to do the socially responsible thing, seeking meaning in gambling that he can’t find in a regular life. As a character, he’s closed off and difficult to sympathise with. He cuts a simultaneously sad and aggressive figure in his immature ambivalence.
I found myself wishing that Kelman had spent more time on the other characters in Tammas’s life. His sister Margaret and her husband Robert. Vi, the young woman Tammas hooks up with, and her daughter Kirsty. Their involvements with Tammas were more interesting to me than the placing of bets and the studying of form. But that would have made A Chancer a different sort of book, and actually this particular story works better with them as bit players in the wider story of Tammas’s drift.
The style of the novel reminded me of Derek Raymond’s Factory series. It’s a bleak depiction of humanity, with people struggling to carve meaning out of the daily grind, with violence only ever a drink away, and stability dependent on enough money coming in to keep the gas and electric on and put food on the table.
It’s a grim book but an honest one, and a slice of history in a way. Kelman captures how stagnation feels for someone living in an economically depressed place that was once a hub of industry and trade.
It gave me a reminder, too, of how close the late 70s were to the 50s and the 60s in terms of attitudes towards the ethics of a working life. Most people still had the values and beliefs that came out of the end of the Second World War, but the period from the late 70s into the early 80s was the start of the process of dismantling all of that and building the society that we’re familiar with now. Tammas’s choices and his family’s reaction to them are symbols of that change. Tammas seems to embody the attitude that hard work doesn’t reap rewards and that betting the little you have is an easier way to get the more that you want.
It’s not a time I want to go back to. There was no nostalgia for that time for me within the pages of this book. I much preferred How Late It Was, How Late, too. The main character in that novel was easier to feel sympathy for.