If I carried away one thing from Tom Molloy’s novel Rebel Streets, then it’s the idea that an Occupation is a great place for a psycho to hang out for, to quote Nabokov, a “wunderbar time.” This might seem a strange conclusion to come to, but the novel illustrates how, under cover if you will, of the auspices of an Occupation, police intimidation, torture, ambushes, civilian casualties as collateral damage and murder are just some of the crimes that routinely take place while legality and conventional morality go out the window. The ‘messiness’ and spillage of an Occupation ensures that no one stays neutral and that only the soldiers–the ones that survive–go home with or without a wooden box, but for those who endure under an Occupation, life is hell on earth.
Set during Northern Ireland during The Troubles, this short novel (232 pages) which is a quick, intense and sometimes brutal read, is essentially the story of Jimmy, a young IRA member who, when the novel begins, is under torture designed to make him break. As the torture is ramped up, Jimmy finally breaks into a blubbering mess, and then once turned, he’s released back to his compatriots with the stipulation that he report back with valuable information to his handler, RUC Special Branch Chief Detective Ian MacDonald. To make Jimmy’s degradation complete, MacDonald, an experienced interrogator who oversees Jimmy’s torture and plays the ‘good cop Saviour,’ insists on paying Jimmy a “Judas” Wage in exchange for information. Any reluctance on Jimmy’s part to betray his friends results in MacDonald threatening Jimmy’s girlfriend, Michaela.
Into the maelstrom arrives a mal-adjusted American, known in Vietnam as Monk, whose failure to adjust back into the humdrum post-conflict existence has led him to Ireland where he intends to volunteer his unique skills to the IRA as a sniper. Known simply as ‘Yank’ by the IRA members, Monk sees Belfast as Tet “without the Vietcong.” Slipping around buildings and rooftops, picking off British soldiers, Monk feels that he’s back in the jungles of Vietnam, dodging booby traps and exhilarated by the thrill of slaughtering the enemy.
Interestingly, the British soldiers and the SAS stay firmly in the background with the attention given instead to a handful of Irish characters, Catholic and Protestant, who exist on both sides of the divide. Rebel Streets might have benefitted from some further character development, but perhaps it’s intentional on the author’s part to leave his characters sketchy–they are, after all, trapped in the roles carved for them by fate, religion, birth and class, and as such they play out their parts occasionally with a smatter of cliché or heavy-handedness. We’re told for example, in one simple paragraph, about Monk’s reception upon returning home from Vietnam:
They explained he had been a dupe, a pawn, damaged goods, a war criminal, a murderer, he hated his daddy or his mommy. They explained he was afraid of women, of intimacy, of being homosexual, of being a rapist, of being castrated. He should have gone to Canada, or jail, or grad school, or taught school.
It’s just too pat, and it doesn’t work.
On the other hand, the various difficult relationships between the Irish characters all work well. It’s easy to imagine Jimmy’s moral dilemma even if we aren’t in his shoes, and the author does an excellent job of showing how his characters fill their social roles and deliberately don’t look too deeply into the moral consequences of their actions. MacDonald, for example, “had become someone he would have shrunk from a month before.” Similarly, Jimmy finds himself ratting out his fellow IRA members, and every time he does, he hates himself more but is unable to see a way out of the trap that’s descended on his life.
Rebel Streets also gives us a glimpse into the private lives of the main characters, so we see RUC Special Branch Chief Detective Ian MacDonald going home at night after a hard day of torture. There’s a silent question raised in these scenes. How do you glide from directing scenes of torture to playing with your small children? There is no answer to the question, of course, but MacDonald seems to know that he’s a man living on borrowed time, and proof of that is the way he’s established a code with his wife that indicates it’s safe to go indoors. Handling Jimmy is a dangerous part of MacDonald’s job, and both men risk their lives with each meeting:
He’s getting nervous sitting here, though Jimmy. It was true. Because one thing the lawman and the guerilla shared was a dread of being seen together. Death had pulled up a chair at this meeting. And death would be present at every one of their rendezvous. And like a true whore, death would be happy to leave with either one, or both of them.
While the main characters are on the front lines of the conflict, some secondary characters try to remain uninvolved, but this is seen as largely an exercise in futility. There are a couple of spots when those who try to remain neutral find themselves dragged into the conflict, and when they emerge on the other side of the experience, they are all turned by the event into new recruits for the IRA.
The biggest silent question Rebel Streets asks is Do the ends justify the means?– a fundamental question which always rears its head in wartime. Given the way that the violence Molloy depicts on the streets of Belfast also acts as a splendid cover for various psychopathic crimes, I’d argue that the novel’s stance–which shows the consequences of an ends-justifies-the-means policy (and its endorsement of violence) illustrates that no one emerges unscathed from the conflict. While Monk hunts British soldiers, “there’s a trap door [had] opened to bottomless black space” in the form of the Butcher gang–a group of psychos who hunt, torture and kill Catholics for sport. The crimes are so horrific that there are rumours that the crimes are not committed by humans but by Vampires. The Butcher Gang ( modelled on the Shankill Butchers?) operate undetected and with the justification of the ongoing sectarian violence, but while they operate on the far end of the sadistic spectrum, are they really any different from the other characters who commit acts of violence? Does enjoying torturing a human being make the act itself worse? And this brings us to the absurdity of: In other words is it ok to torture people as long as you don’t enjoy it? While Rebel Streets is a story of the choices made by a young man in a hopeless situation, the novel, for this reader, raised some interesting questions about the morality of violence. When engaged in a war against the enemy, how much can be justified? Is there a cut off point when actions become unacceptable? We would, no doubt, all agree that the Butcher Gang are criminal but under what circumstances do slaughter, bombing, torture and assassination become ok? Molloy argues that the die-hard idealists mingle with the pyschopaths on a slippery moral slope, and at the end of the day, it’s a judgement call to peel them apart.
Tom Molloy was a freelance journalist and covered The Troubles. According to the blurb on the back cover, he was sent, at one point, to “the infamous Castlereagh detention center” where Rebel Streets begins.