The happenstance nature of all this is carefully orchestrated. Sometimes Kelman’s carefulness shows through, a visible seam holding the plot together, but he compensates for this with the wonderfully observed slow accumulation of detail that makes up Murdo’s world — both inner and outer ... It takes discipline for a writer to stick to the commonplace so religiously, but over time that discipline pays off. The ordinary becomes the real, and as Murdo sets off to find that gig in Lafayette the casual descriptions of his journey become almost breathlessly anxiety-producing. There’s an element of wish fulfillment here that’s unusual in Kelman’s work, but he’s paid for it, as it were, in advance. And the novel’s ending is more than justified by Kelman’s means of getting us there. A kid is trying to overcome his grief without forgetting about it: a contradiction that serves more generally for what’s involved in being an immigrant, or in growing up. And Dirt Road is about all of those things.
Modernist stream of consciousness lives on in the brilliant Dirt Road ... Like a 21st-century, Scottish, working-class, Leopold Bloomian Holden Caulfield, 16-year-old Murdo Macdonald ruminates on boats, sounds, birds, insects, cells, girls, music, work, race, life, and death in a narrative as epic as it is quotidian, an adolescent Hero’s Journey through grief and America ... Through Murdo’s eyes, contemporary America — 'A different world. That was America. Ye thought ye knew it from the movies but ye didnt' — appears defamiliarized yet spot on: our sidewalk-less suburbs and seedy bus stations; convenience-store food and mall walking; weather obsession, security state, guns, and racism. But if both Kelman, a lifelong radical, and his teenage protagonist are skeptical of our politics (the Scottish gathering is threaded with white supremacy), they embrace our music as a powerful unifying force, transcending and bringing together races and cultures. Murdo can never escape the loss of his sister and mother; he can only assuage them. One facet of Dirt Road’s genius is that it recognizes this, offering neither pat catharsis nor improbably definitive resolution. Yet Murdo and his father both move forward in a final move that is unexpected, if a bit fantastic, but perfectly in line with this beautiful novel.
Like the great protagonists of Russian fiction, Kelman’s characters, no matter how little money or formal education they possess, are lit up by their own sensibilities and 'soul.' Dirt Road is steeped in this tradition ... Dirt Road is not only a novel about a boy’s journey through music away from the paralysis of grief, it is also about race. With ease, Kelman’s narrative moves away from his previous settings in Scotland and England and focuses on the realities of a country in which the divisions between black and white are livid and dangerous ... In Dirt Road we see him continuing to show how human experience can be energised and renewed by its modest scale, not flattened by it into a stereotype. It is another masterpiece from one of our best writers.
Although recounted in often repetitive detail (the sandwiches eaten and T-shirts worn are documented along the way), the seeming lightness of the novel’s slim plot is freighted with meaning ... Although Murdo’s naive narrative style captures the essence of a teenager on the cusp of manhood struggling with grief, responsibility, desire and family, Kelman is far too accomplished a novelist to leave it there. Through the accretion of details, of everything said and unsaid, he probes the deep well of grief in both Murdo and his father ... Through father and son, Kelman sensitively explores the nature of choice and fate; Murdo slowly grows to recognise the circumstances that constrain the adults around him, whether it be jobs, money or family ... Dirt Road may not have quite the grit of Kelman’s previous work, and the novel’s ending, with Murdo heading off into the sunrise (rather than sunset), stretches plausibility, but the hopeful spirit in which Kelman allows Murdo to traverse both his grief and his adventure on the road makes for an engrossing and moving coming-of-age tale.
Dirt Road is full of unobtrusive observations, touching on such issues as poverty, race, and the potential for violence. Soon after arriving in the U.S., Murdo is smitten by a family playing zydeco music in a small town. In typical Scottish fashion, a lot of what goes on between the grieving father and son is left unsaid. Instead, they turn to their respective modes of comfort: music for Murdo, books for his father. Kelman has written a moving tribute to the unbreakable bond between fathers and sons.
[Kelman] puts his skill with interior monologue to work here, delivering a lot of the book through Murdo’s thoughts—which can be delightful and a bit tiresome. Still, they offer intimate access to a young man facing huge choices amid new family situations, cultural oddities, and his father’s constant lectures on poor manners. Their shared pain, efforts to understand each other, and slow acceptance of inevitable change are beautifully rendered. Kelman also conveys a gifted artist’s keen sensitivity to music as a treasured craft and maybe another kind of family. A rich tale of family, dislocation, the joys of creativity, and the torment of painful choices.
...a powerful meditation on loss, life, death, and the bond between father and son ... Throughout the novel, Murdo’s observations are prone to long, circuitous paths, but they are strikingly astute. Like in his previous works, Kelman has created a fully-realized, relatable voice that reveals a young man’s urgent need for connection in a time of grief.