DIRT ROAD

James Kelman

Four starred reviews, shortlisted for the Saltire Society Fiction Book of the Year award, and named a “What to Read Right Now” selection in Vanity Fair

After his mother’s recent death, sixteen-year-old Murdo and his father travel from their home in rural Scotland to Alabama to be with his émigré uncle and American aunt. Stopping at a small town on their way from the airport, Murdo happens upon a family playing zydeco music and joins them, leaving with a gift of two CDs of Southern American songs. On this first visit to the States,

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Four starred reviews, shortlisted for the Saltire Society Fiction Book of the Year award, and named a “What to Read Right Now” selection in Vanity Fair

After his mother’s recent death, sixteen-year-old Murdo and his father travel from their home in rural Scotland to Alabama to be with his émigré uncle and American aunt. Stopping at a small town on their way from the airport, Murdo happens upon a family playing zydeco music and joins them, leaving with a gift of two CDs of Southern American songs. On this first visit to the States, Murdo notices racial tension, religious fundamentalism, the threat of severe weather, guns, and aggressive behavior, all unfamiliar to him. Yet his connection to the place strengthens by way of its musical culture. Murdo may be young but he is already a musician.

While at their relatives’ home, the grieving father and son experience kindness and kinship but share few words of comfort with each other, Murdo losing himself in music and his reticent and protective dad in books. The aunt, “the very very best,” Murdo calls her, provides whatever solace he receives, until his father comes around in a scene of great emotional release.

As James Wood has written of this brilliant writer’s previous work in The New Yorker, “The pleasure, as always in Kelman, is being allowed to inhabit mental meandering and half-finished thoughts, digressions and wayward jokes, so that we are present” with his characters. Dirt Road is a powerful story about the strength of family ties, the consolation of music, and one unforgettable journey from darkness to light.

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  • Catapult
  • Paperback
  • July 2017
  • 416 Pages
  • 9781936787500

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$16.95

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About James Kelman

James Kelman was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1989 with his novel A Disaffection, which also won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction. He went on to win the Booker Prize five years later with How Late It Was, How Late, before being shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in both 2009 and 2011. He has taught at the University of Texas, Austin, and San José State University in California. Kelman was born in Glasgow, Scotland, where he currently lives.

Praise

Shortlisted for the Saltire Society Fiction Book of the Year award
A “What to Read Right Now” selection in Vanity Fair
Four starred pre-publication reviews from Booklist, Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly:

“A powerful meditation on loss, life, death, and the bond between father and son. . . . Kelman has created a fully-realized, relatable voice that reveals a young man’s urgent need for connection in a time of grief.”Publishers Weekly (starred review) 

“Beautifully rendered. . . . A rich tale of family, dislocation, the joys of creativity, and the torment of painful choices.”Kirkus Reviews (starred review) 

“Kelman has written a moving tribute to the unbreakable bond between fathers and sons.”Booklist (starred review)

Discussion Questions

1. “Son we’re here on holiday. Dad smiled. . . . Murdo said, It’s not a holiday.” How does this exchange help you understand what this journey means for Murdo, and for his father?

2. Murdo is fascinated by the Road Atlas, by the naming of towns and the contours of landscape. He is a wanderer, too. Do you remember being his age and looking at an atlas, or going on walks or drives to new places? What memories stay with you from those experiences, and how do they help you relate to Murdo?

3. “Today was the first gig he had been to in ages. Since before Mum died. And being in the audience was good. That strong effect it had inside ye. The music into the body, connecting ye.” Has music helped you through hardship in your own life? How so?

4. What do you think of this book’s portrayal of family?

5. The use of Scottish vernacular in this book—“It doesnay matter,” “I know what like ye are after a gig”—encourages us to read it aloud. Try reading a paragraph out loud while others listen, and discuss whether that shared, performed experience feels different from reading the novel to yourself.

6. It’s notable that Murdo loses his phone in the opening pages of the novel. Indeed much of the novel turns around a relative lack of communication between Murdo and his father. How does James Kelman use silence, and that which goes unsaid between Murdo and his father, to develop these two characters and their relationship?

7. Dirt Road is singular for the quiet, powerful ways it deals with grief. For you, did the characters’s relative avoidance of the topic feel typical of men, perhaps Scottish men in particular, or did it resonate with how many of us deal with tragedy in our lives?

8. There is a long history of outside writers to capture the essence of the United States—from de Tocqueville to Robert Louis Stevenson to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. What do you think is lost or gained by having an international author like Kelman look at America, particularly the American South?

9. Discuss the role of music for Murdo. What does it add to the narrative?

10. How much did you know about zydeco music before reading this book? Does Murdo’s role as an outsider affect his relationship to the music? How does music connect to both place and character in Kelman’s story?