Curtis Westman's Reviews > How Late It Was, How Late

How Late It Was, How Late by James Kelman
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's review
Jun 03, 2009

really liked it
bookshelves: read-in-2009
Read in June, 2009

How Late It Was, How Late is a fun novel to read. Written entirely in stream-of-consciousness Glaswegian, Kelman's novel has a flair that honours the flavour of Glasgow in its realistic portrayal of a man, Sammy, who is embroiled in bad luck. The story follows Sammy's journey after a blackout two-day drinking binge, the events of which are never made completely clear. It begins in medias res, as Sammy starts a fight with police officers ('sodjers') only to be beaten badly and wake up without his sight. The reasoning behind his attack on the officers is ambiguous, but Sammy never blames anyone but himself for his actions. Throughout the novel, we discover that the drinking binge was brought on by a fight he had had with his live-in girlfriend, Helen, and after he is released from lockup, struggling to find his way home without being able to see, he returns to their flat to discover that she is missing.

The plot of How Late It Was, How Late is not extremely complicated, but like Ulysses before it, the simplest of actions are described in minute detail. This is important in the context of the novel, because Sammy's sudden blindness is an affliction shared by the reader. New characters are never described physically, except in subtle guesses based on their attitudes and demeanors. Locations are never identified except by touch and the promise that Sammy is where he means to be. Most importantly, Sammy's decisions happen on the fly, and we are privy to every one of his changes of heart, whether they be justified or not. Thus, a simple trip to the shops to buy a lunch becomes an ordeal, and Sammy is thwarted by everything from the whether to his own sense of direction. In short, we, also, are made to feel blind.

This is especially true of the outcome of the novel. Though we hear Sammy's thoughts on the present situations, his final decisions seem to come as they happen, and though he aims to do one thing, he could very well choose to do another. When the novel ends much like it began, in the middle of the story, the reader is left to ponder what he has decided and especially whether or not it will work out. Kelman never just gives the reader an answer without a reasoning.

The narrator is an interesting literary device as well, here, as it is stream-of-consciousness and privy only to the thoughts of Sammy, but it is in third person. With the brogue and demeanor of the narrator, the constant divergences and tangents, and the language in which the story is presented, it feels as if the novel reads like a life story told at a pub or in prison, a recanting of a journey originally told by Sammy but passed along from person to person as a tale of one man's struggle against the police, fate, and his own bad habits.

Sammy is a sympathetic character for sure, though his troubled past makes him unreliable. Even throughout the worst trials he suffers in the novel, he remains optimistic and is always changing his plans to meet the challenges presented to him. How Late It Was, How Late is in some ways an uplifting novel because Sammy is such a fighter, against the odds, and yet his good demeanor and apologetic nature always come through in the end.

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05/27/2009 page 120
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