Analysis of James Kelman’s The Good Times

The Good Times is a sequence of 20 first-person stories documenting the inner lives of working-class men and boys in Scotland. James Kelman portrays his characters empathetically in their common struggle to survive poverty, boredom, and failure with their self-respect intact. Each story evokes a distinct “male consciousness,” often by setting private, inward experience against the pressures of public situations: We encounter these men and boys in the workplace, in the schoolyard, in shops and pubs, on the subway, and in the family home. Narrated by males ranging from childhood to late middle age, a strong memento mori (“remember, you must die”) theme links the stories to larger philosophical issues. The reflections of all the protagonists—disaffected boys and yearning teenagers; a deluded 30-something divorcé; manual toilers, both embittered and cavalier; moody philosophical husbands— have a decided existential flavor, though the tone of the stories ranges from silly humor to devastating grimness. Many build toward an existential climax, involving a moment of authentic decision between resignation and a liberating sense of responsibility for one’s own fate. In “It Happened to Me Once,” an unemployed man waiting to collect his social security money is annoyed by another man waiting in line, someone he regards as a loser but in whom he recognizes his own desperate condition. The narrator’s paranoia lends the tense encounter an unbearable sense of dread and prompts a dismal epiphany.

In contrast, in “Yeh, These Stages,” a depressed man whose girlfriend has left him wallows in self-pity before being spurred into life by a mysterious knock at the door, which he opens only to find that there is no one there. The “human absence” is an emblem of the world’s indifference to his plight; a man previously in “the kind of despair that makes suicide a positive move” realizes that the world will carry on with or without him, and he finds in this thought an invigorating sense of independence, even hope.

Awareness of one’s own mortality and limitations looms large in The Good Times, and all Kelman’s characters seem to struggle toward accepting, without despair, that “they werent going to play for Rangers, they werent going to play for anybody; and they werent getting the good job, they werent getting this that or anything.” (Glasgow Rangers is one of the two dominant teams in Scottish soccer.) This struggle begins early in life. The boy narrator of “Joe Laughed” is so irritated by his friends’ senseless and “childish” behavior that he despairs of being part of society at all. In a fit of despair he imagines completely abdicating from the roles—son, friend, teammate, neighbor—that community life imposes on him. This fantasy of total withdrawal into self-absorption shows its comic potential in “Gardens Go on Forever,” in which the fanciful imagination of the narrator and the absurd conversations he has with his workmate result in one of Kelman’s funniest stories. At the end of a typically anarchic chain of daydreams, the relaxed and flippant protagonist envisages his own funeral. His oppressive job does not move this character (unlike others in the collection) to bitterness but underscores the freedom that comes with absolute existential responsibility. The narrator of “Oh My Darling” agrees: “If people do want to change their lives then it is their responsibility and not mine, nor is it anybody else’s, it’s theirs, theirs and theirs alone. But they should be happy, content, just to be living instead of not yet entering into the slipstream.”

In Kelman’s view, the brute truth of the memento mori has carpe diem (“seize the day”) as its everyday meaning; life is for living, nothing more. “The Norwest Reaches” warmly evokes the humble comforts of family life, while the intrusion of social class into romantic relationships is brilliantly captured in “Oh My Darling” and “Constellation.” “Strength” hauntingly explores the painful closeness of the long-married, when personal, individual memories and the hurt of regret have become shared property. The protagonist’s wife has a morbid fascination with a motorcycle accident from her husband’s teenage years, in which he and his then girlfriend were nearly killed. Far from feeling troubled or jealous at the thought of her husband’s former lover, she dwells uncomfortably on the relationship, wondering what might have been if not for the girlfriend’s interfering mother: “I know ye loved that wee lassie, but it doesnay bother me. Even if ye had got killed the gether, the two of ye, it still wouldnay bother me. I just admire ye both, I do.” The genuine selfl essness of this sentiment is clouded over by the implication that the character would be unmoved had her future husband died before meeting her, which concedes that the married couple’s own, subsequent relationship was no kind of romantic destiny but the product of contingent circumstances. Doing without such comfortable myths (“we were made for each other”) demands the strength of the story’s title: Those myths are a kind of emotional crutch, comparable to the pouffe (footrest) the wife uses for her immediate comfort, but which, over time, the husband fears will leave her spine warped and twisted. The wife’s “raking up” of old memories is symbolically connected to her stubborn refusal to sit up straight; “ye’ll just suffer for it” is her husband’s halfpitying, half-reproving warning. The distorting effect of loneliness on a middle-aged bachelor is the topic of the collection’s most shattering story, “The Comfort”; its deft examination of masculinity, morality, and death might almost be read as The Good Times in miniature.

Kelman, James. The Good Times. New York: Anchor Books, 1999.

Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story

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