PM Press Blog

‘God’s Teeth and Other Phenomena’ Review: Going His Own Way

James Kelman’s novel is a portrait of the artist as an older man whose irascibility is the flip side of his devotion to the craft.

By Boyd Tonkin
Wall Street Journal
July 8th, 2022

Critics keen to rescue the Scottish author James Kelman from the presumed stigma of a narrow regional identity love to cite august names such as Kafka, Dostoevsky and Beckett. Fair enough: the Glasgow-born novelist, short-story writer and essayist has paid his dues to these, and other, forerunners. But, as he once told teenagers at a Texas high school, different idols predated them: Buddy Holly, Connie Francis, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino. Giants of rock, soul and country gave the young Scot his first models of artistic integrity: “They sang of their own existence, in their own voice,” without apology. For Mr. Kelman, “At the root of what they were about was self-respect.” These pop trailblazers “assumed the right to create art. They just went out and did it.” For half a century, Mr. Kelman has done exactly that.

Despite praise, prizes and a prolific output, he remains a defiant outsider. “God’s Teeth and Other Phenomena” is his 10th novel; he has also published 10 sets of stories. Much of this new book concerns what W.B. Yeats (in “The Choice”) dubbed the “old perplexity” of creators who go their own way: “an empty purse.” Or, as Mr. Kelman’s disgruntled writer-narrator puts it, “Surviving is f—ing hard.” When his debut collection came out in 1973, Mr. Kelman was working as a bus driver. He received no payment but 200 free copies. They arrived the February day before he faced a pre-dawn start: “Just the thing to destroy any romantic illusions about being a writer.”