Tag Archives: Irish fiction

The Old Jest: Jennifer Johnston

Jennifer Johnston’s short novel, The Old Jest, a coming of age tale, takes place over a number of days in 1920. The main focus is an 18-year-old girl named Nancy, and when the book opens it’s her birthday. On the cusp of adulthood, Nancy has finished school and plans to attend Trinity in the autumn. There’s not enough money in this faded Anglo-Irish gentry family to send her to Oxford university–plus there are rumblings of “a war with England.”

Nancy is an orphan. Her mother died some years earlier, and she never knew her father, a man who remains a mystery figure. She’s been brought up by her Aunt Mary who bears the burden of the household since her brother, Gabriel died at Ypres. Nancy’s grandfather, General Dwyer is “potty,” but these days we’d probably say he has Alzheimer’s. One of the biggest dramas in Nancy’s life is her crush on a young man named Harry who has his eyes on the bigger prize of the heiress Maeve.

the-old-jest

Nancy’s diary entries make up some of the novel, so we see her confessional thoughts, and her desire that her grandfather die “before we become damaged by his decay.” She’s still a girl, and yet she’s supposed to act like an adult. Nancy chooses her moments to flip back and forth as if she can’t quite accept the responsibilities and polite behaviour of adulthood.

Outside of the safety and security of Nancy’s home, civil unrest occasionally washes up on their doorstep. There’s mention of the Black and Tans, but life in the household is mainly untouched by what goes on in the outside world until Nancy meets an IRA man who’s hiding out in an abandoned beach hut she frequents. He calls into question everything she’s been taught to believe:

“After all,” he said gently, “Your grandfather was a killer too, and no one makes sarcastic remarks at him for that. Not at all. They gave him medals and a pension, He wasn’t even killing to defend his own fatherland, indeed the very opposite. He was taking other people’s land away from them. Creating an Empire for a little old lady with a thing like a tea cosy on her head.”

There’s a sweetness hovering over the novel that partially comes from Nancy’s innocence and zest for life. (Some readers found Nancy annoying–I did not.) Some of the sweetness comes from the idea that we are glimpsing the last days of a particular lifestyle–although Nancy is initially unaware of the truth of the family’s circumstances.

I liked this novel, which has the feel of a well-fleshed out short story, for its bittersweet glimpse at Nancy’s life; by the time the book concludes, it’s easy to see that her world has irrevocably changed. Her innocence is gone, and so her childhood passes away, leaving her to face an uncertain adulthood.

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The Glorious Heresies: Lisa McInerney

“You just collect religious souvenirs to use as murder weapons, is it?” 

The Glorious Heresies, a debut novel from Irish author Lisa McInerney portrays a handful of lives immersed in crime, drugs, and violence. Over the course of a five-year period, these characters intersect, criss-crossing back and forth over a murder. This is Cork post Celtic Tiger, an Ireland populated by characters whose troubled lives rankle with conscience for past deeds and current acts, and yet turning to the church or family brings no answers.

the-glorious-heresies

The book has a bit of a dodgy opening with fifteen year old Ryan about to have sex with his girlfriend Karine for the first time. Ryan, already a very successful drug dealer, initially feels that he has few choices in life, and as the plot continues he becomes arguably the most interesting character in novel. Ryan’s boss, a man with “an arctic disposition punctuated by explosions of lurid temper,” treats the boy like a “pet.” Ryan lives with his violent, abusive, alcoholic father, Tony Cusack whose “charming laziness […] had morphed into dusty apathy.” Cusack is a pitiful creature whose Italian wife died in a car accident some years earlier leaving Tony to raise their six children on his own. Tony who hits the bottle and Ryan regularly, isn’t doing at all well with this monumental responsibility. It’s hardly a happy home:

Tony Cusack’s terrace was only one of dozens flung out in a lattice of reluctant socialism. There was always some brat lighting bonfires on the green, or a lout with a belly out to next Friday being drunkenly ejected from his home (with a measure of screaming fishwife thrown in for good luck), or squad cars or teenage squeals or gibbering dogs.

Then there’s Georgie, a drug-addicted prostitute who tries to find religion but runs foul of crime boss Jimmy Phelan. Meanwhile tough guy Phelan may terrify everyone else in Cork, but his mother Maureen is the bane of his existence.

The book has a strong emphasis on fractured familial relationships (Ryan and his father, Jimmy and his mother, Maureen), and we see how family structure has failed these characters, and how that old reliable fall back, religion, seems impotent in today’s Ireland.

McInerney argues that her characters, running foul of various vices, pressured by economic realities, are still capable of making moral choices, even though they think otherwise. At one point in the novel, a maturer Ryan argues that “there’s always a choice,” and while at one point in Ryan’s life, he abdicated from the notion of personal responsibility, ultimately he must make a stand.

Although the writing spits with raucous life through, the novel’s plot sagged a little after the halfway point. There’s one scene in which Jimmy’s mother Maureen, angry that she was forced to give up her baby years ago, takes on a priest, and her long speech (extract here) seems forced and not up to the author’s very natural style:

I might have died in your asylums, me with my smart mouth. I killed one man but you would have killed me in the name of your god, wouldn’t you? How many did you kill? How many lives did you destroy with your morality and your Seal of Confession and your lies. 

It’s hard not to love McInerney’s troubled, flawed, vice addled characters, and it’s harder still not to hope that they will manage to turn their lives around before the last page. There’s a character here, shit-stirrer Tara Duane, whose malicious meanness separates her from the rest of the troubled, wounded cast.

The bitch had always maintained she didn’t have a bob to her name but with only one kid and a frame that suggested she only ate on Thursdays, it was obvious she was hawking the poor mouth.

McInerney’s writing and characterization seem so well-assured, it’s hard to believe that this is her first novel, and in spite of the novel’s flaws, I loved the writing style. I hope we see a second book soon.

Maureen was seeking redemption.

Not for herself. You don’t just kill someone and get forgiven; they’d hang you for a lot less. No, she was seeking redemption like a pig sniffs for truffles: rooting it out, turning it over, mad for the taste of it, resigned to giving it up. 

Thanks to Gert for pointing me in the direction of this book in the first place.

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Time Present and Time Past by Deirdre Madden

Deirdre Madden’s Time Present and Time Past is a quiet, moving novel about the constant presence of time and memory in the lives of two Irish siblings. For once this is not a dysfunctional family, and what a refreshing change it is to read about people who have differences but who still maintain (mostly) healthy relationships in spite of opinions and past history. I’ll get to the one testy relationship later, and it’s by far the best of this excellent novel.

The issue of time appears constantly throughout the novel, and with one exception, it’s never overdone. The characters are members of a Dublin family: middle-aged Fintan Buckley, his wife, Colette, their three children, Fintan’s sister, Martina, Aunt Beth, and Fintan’s irascible mother, Joan. While not a great deal happens in the novel in terms of dramatic plot, instead this is a novel in which memories of the past are in the present as we follow our characters through their daily lives.

time present time pastThe novel begins with this passage:

Where does it all begin? Perhaps here, in Baggot Street, on the first floor of one of Dublin’s finest restaurants on a day in spring. It seems as good a place to starts as any.

This simple passage sets up the idea of the continuum of time, and as we see as the novel continues, the past and even the seeds for the future are here in the present. While the past is with us through memories, the novel hints at an entirely different presentation of time with the past and present right there in front of our eyes, and while we can’t access the past or the future, all three sectors of time are invisibly connected.

It’s spring 2006, and Fintan, in middle age, experiences moments of disassociation–familiar objects seem bizarre; he tunes out of a conversation with someone as he no longer pays attention to the spoken words but instead feels as though he’s “watching a film with the sound turned down.” These incidents involving “hallucinations and strange shifts of perception” open Fintan’s mind to a greater awareness of the past–specifically though an interest in photography.  He become fascinated with a photograph of an unidentified ancestress, and at one point also notes that the sky looks a certain way one day, and “it was also how it would have looked in certain days in the eighteenth century.” The notion of passing time is clear–photographs may “preserve” a moment, but our lives are brief and fleeting.

While Fintan begins to discover the history of early photography, his sister Martina emerges as the second main character in the novel who wrestles with the past but for entirely different reasons. We know there’s some dark secret involving her sudden panicked flight from London years earlier and her return to Dublin. Martina now lives with her Aunt Beth in a wonderful home that seems to exist in some sort of time warp. On the surface, Martina, who owns a small, successful clothing shop seems to be a very collected, organized business woman, but as Fintan notes, “you could spend a lifetime looking at Martina and wondering who she was.”

The quiet joy of this book is in the details of life and family. Fintan and Collette have two sons: Rob, who “while still in his cot [he] had the thousand-yard stare of a hostile banker,” and Niall, a vegetarian with a “highly developed social conscience.” While Niall is “somewhat ascetic,” Rob, who brings home “a succession of trophy girlfriends” develops “expensive tastes and habits.” These early-established differences and behaviours are sign-posts for the future, and in one slightly awkward chapter (the only thing I’d fault in this otherwise exquisite novel), we get a glimpse of the future of this family, post boom.

More than anything else, the members of this average Irish family, for this reader, seemed extraordinarily vivid and quite real. There’s one wonderful scene when Fintan takes his daughter and her friend to the zoo, and collects the other girl from her divorced father–a man Fintan recognizes as being a younger, sadder version of himself:

This is domestic chaos on an industrial scale. He can just about find space on the island for his Pooh mug amidst the wreckage of a week’s worth of rushed breakfast and lousy dinners. The jacket of yesterday’s suit hangs over the back of a chair; the silk snake of the tie lies coiled on the floor beneath it. The apartment is so coolly minimalist in its design, and yet so unrepentantly squalid, that Fintan cannot help but admire the other man for his sheer chutzpah in having comprehensively trashed the place, as a revolt against being forced to live there. Fintan salutes his refusal to be reasonable; his rejection of this chilly box as his home.

The novel establishes Fintan’s relationship with his mother, Joan, fraught with its ritualistic landmines, almost immediately, and we know that there’s more to come. The novel’s finest moment has to be when Fintan visits his mother and he layers the visit with the element of a game, rewarding himself with an “extra cake” if his mother tramples onto already well-abused territory:

“Such flowers! They’re like the sun itself! They’ll light up the room for me.” They exchange pleasantries and small talk as he follows her down the hall to her ground-floor apartment, and he asks himself, as he sometimes does initially when they meet why he had dreaded so much going to see her, although he wonders how long it will be before the first signs of conflict appear. Almost immediately, the slow attrition begins.

“And don’t you have Lucy with you?”

Fintan says no, that Colette has taken her to the hairdressers.

“Well that’s a disappointment, I had been looking forward to seeing her.”

One-nil. As he sits down on the sofa he realises that he is still holding the paper bag with the fish in it, so he hands it to her.

“Smoked salmon. You couldn’t have brought me anything more welcome.”

An equalizer in the second minute. She takes the packet of fish from the bag and waves it at him sternly.

“Now if you could get that son of your to eat some of this, it would do him good. He can’t be getting the protein he needs from those nuts or greens or whatever it us that he lives on.”

Two-one.

That scene, my favourite in the book, is painfully real, yet author Deirdre Madden doesn’t create monsters or villains here (well, ok, one deep in the past); these are moments pulled from life, and later on in that same scene, we see Joan isn’t just a repetitive mouthpiece, she’s intelligent and thoughtful, and quite ready with “gloomy predictions” about Ireland’s future. Because of scenes such as this, the reader is allowed into the lives of some incredibly human characters. I’ve seen reviews complaining about this book in which ‘nothing happens,’ and I’ve seen other reviews praising the book highly. I’m of the latter opinion. This is a graceful tale of the passing of time and the ephemeral qualities to our lives. Madden’s quiet, yet emotionally powerful tale argues that we should cherish every precious second because that moment won’t return again.

Review copy

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The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan

But  there were seven years there where you could build houses out of cardboard and masking tape and they’d be sold off of the plans. People queued all night to buy boxes of houses all crammed together like kennels. “

Fresh from Claire Kilroy’s humorous fictional look at the Irish financial crisis,  The Devil I Know came Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart.  The Devil I Know is a lively interpretation of financial malfeasance and the subsequent Irish housing boom, and while I enjoyed the novel, I was a little troubled by its take the forces behind the irresponsibility. The Spinning Heart’s focus is on the fallout from the collapse of one dodgy contractor, Pokey Burke–a man whose name alone should stain the houses he’s built. But now the economy has collapsed, Pokey has buggered off to somewhere in Europe, leaving behind angry unpaid employees and unfinished houses. Even the ‘finished’ houses are falling apart. So this then is a ground-eye view of the average Irish man and woman touched, in one way or another, by Pokey’s actions in this novel told through 21 connected voices–all residents of one village.

The first voice is that of Bobby, a son who hates his father, a man living in a cottage fronted by a gate which includes the spinning heart of the title. While the spinning heart is a literal element in the life of Bobby Mahon and his father, it’s also figurative. The metal heart is rusted and neglected, and it’s symbolic of the emotional states of many of the characters here who lead lives of bitter disappointment with parenthood, love and trust often ill-afforded curses in this harsh world.

the spinning heartBobby, who worked as Pokey Burke’s foreman, opens the story dramatically with a statement that lets us know just where he stands with his father. Bobby goes “every day to see [if] he is dead and every day he lets me down.” Bobby stands to inherit the cottage and the two acres left from drinking away the proceeds from “Granddad’s farm.” Bobby’s father, who’s never drank before in his life,  inherited and then self-destructively “drank out the farm to spite his father.” Bobby is convinced that his father stays alive to “spite” him, and there’s definitely that element at play between father and son, and the cyclical dynamic of hate, spite and delayed revenge. Bobby’s tale also introduces the character of shifty contractor, Pokey Burke, a man who’s shafted his employees by withholding taxes and keeping the money, but at least Pokey’s Irish employees were paid–even if they were ripped off. Pokey never paid his immigrant sub-contract workers, and now Pokey’s angry, cheated employees can’t find him–he’s “sunning himself in only god only knows where, hiding from the bank and the taxman.” The Pokeys of this world always manage to slide through.

Many voices in the book suffer in various ways from Pokey contagion. Pokey’s father, Josie, who’s deeply ashamed of his son’s actions asks in a continuation of the toxicity of parent-child relationships: “who’s to blame when a child turns out rotten?” Another voice belongs to Brian, a construction worker who’s decided to chuck it all and try his chances in Australia.

So I’m going to Australia in the context of a severe recession, and therefore I am not a yahoo or a waster, but a tragic figure, a modern incarnation of the poor tenant farmer, laid low by famine, cast from his smallholding by the Gombeen Man, forced to choose between the coffin ship and the grave.

While most of the characters are emotionally stunted human beings, Lily the local “wanton,” never refuses a man as a lover unless they “really and truly disgusted” her. Lily’s generosity of body extends to the generosity of her heart and she alone seems to be capable of emitting uncomplicated love–although that uncomplicated love boomerangs back with painful personal and social ramifications.

While the novel is well constructed with one voice picking up the narrative from another angle and at a different place in time some of the voices are not as convincing as others. Vasya, “the Russian,” immigrant worker, for example, struck a discordant note for this reader with his description of his origins, “my mother’s mother spoke that way, in a dialect of a tribe of reindeer herders from far North of my family’s ground.” I almost gave up at that point, but I didn’t and I’m glad I persisted.

Other voices are much stronger. Single mother Réaltin, for example, lives with her son in a house built by Pokey Burke. The house was bought by Réaltin’s father and it’s in one  of the many ‘ghost’ estates–dozens of unfinished  houses stand in various states of repair. Réaltin’s father cuts the grass of every house on his daughter’s street in an attempt to create a feeling and look of normalcy. Labourer Seanie Shaper, “a pure solid madman for women,” thinks he is the father of Réaltin’s son, Dylan, and rather poignantly and pointlessly attempts to carve a place for himself in Réaltin and his son’s lives.

Donal Ryan’s voices create a picture of a harsh world in which painful familial relationships are tainted with destructive bitterness, and even in this small village, surely a microcosm of the larger panorama of Irish society, it’s a tough dog-eat-dog world. Here’s Seanie Shaper remembering how Pokey hired a crew of immigrant workers:

He took on a rake of Polish subbies and screwed the poor pricks and we all thought it was a laugh. The whole subbie thing was a right con job. Then he screw the rest of us and we laughed on the other side of our faces.

Thanks to Kevin for reviewing this book and getting my interest. Like Kevin, I liked the book’s structure even though some of the voices were much less convincing than others (the child, the dead man, the Russian), and the brevity of those narratives undermined character development–although I could also argue that character development was not the point as the novel is a glimpse of a segment of Irish society in the aftershocks of the financial crisis.  Another weakness of the novel was the distracting, implausible dramatic event that occurs and distracts from, rather than adds to, the narratives. Coincidentally I am currently reading another novel with multiple narratives but its focus on the actions of one woman allow a creative, multi-faceted approach to character that works very well indeed.

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The Devil I know by Claire Kilroy

“Money kills the imagination. It makes us want the same thing.”

Those of us who’ve had front row seats to the recent real estate bubble grasp that we’ve lived through fantastic times that will make the history books; the big question is: how will that history will be told? Articles about the real estate bubble in North America often present this period as a time of insanity–as if some sort of virus swept through the land, taking the form of national madness as household after household, suddenly under water, fell to re-fi (leveraging your equity), ‘creative financing,  or the ‘real estate as investment’ bug. Actually that attitude annoys me because it avoids the obvious truth regarding responsibility–that people were active participants and that segments of the financial world largely avoided accountability.

The devil I knowBecause of my attitude towards the real estate bubble, I loved parts of Claire Kilroy’s novel, The Devil I Know, but at the same time due to its Hoffmanesque undertone, it buys into the myth of the bubble. Although adding macabre, other worldly elements may be as good a way as any other of explaining the insanity of the real estate bubble, and to Kilroy’s credit, her unique approach to the subject certainly works here.

The emphasis in The Devil I Know is in Ireland, on the powers behind the bubble and not on the average homeowner, and we know, of course, the final outcome of those heady days of financial excess. The book opens with Tristram Amory St. Lawrence, the thirteenth Earl of Howth testifying in a 2016 court case regarding the Celtic Tiger and his role in the disastrous real estate bubble which took place in the mid 1990s until the collapse in 2008. With Tristram directing his apologia towards Fergus (Justice O’Reilly) and fielding the occasional question, the story builds over the course of a few days as Tristram, a recovering alcoholic, recalls how, in 2006, his plane, en route to Florida, was unexpectedly diverted to Dublin. He stayed away from his home for “unspeakably personal reasons,” and as soon as he lands it becomes clear why he didn’t want to return.

Within a short period of time, Tristram, who’s been thought dead by everyone who knew him (“that was another Tristram St Lawrence,”) is being pestered by low-rent contractor Desmond Hickey, the coarse bully of Tristram’s miserable school days. Years may have passed, but little has changed; Desmond is still a bullying Neanderthal, an “indigenous short-arse,” who insists that Tristram, upper-class and educated, is gay, and that “he’s scared to bend over” around Tristram. Desmond, however, may be just a small-time contractor, but he’s a man with vision, and more importantly, a man with large appetites and ambition. After learning that Tristram inherited Hilltop, a gorgeous neglected eight acre estate from his mother, and that Tristram has access to financing through his mysterious benefactor/acquaintance/sponsor, M. Deauville, Desmond insists that Tristram get financing as the newly appointed director of Castle Holdings. Castle Holdings is a “shell company. It bought nothing, sold nothing manufactured nothing, did nothing … yet it returned a profit of 66 million that first year.”  But “who better to direct a shell company than a shell of a human being?” And Ireland, is, after all, a “low-taxation jurisdiction with benevolent regulation policies.” And so the madness begins….

Desmond’s first plan is to build on land zoned for industrial use. Re-zoning is no problem, and Minister Lawless, a gray, grimy little man is only too happy to reconsider zoning when presented with packet of cash. Desmond borrows the money to buy the land with its price tag of 10 million. Within six weeks, the land is worth sixty million: “a profit of over one million a day, ” and here’s Desmond in one of his portakabins as he pours over his ridiculous plans:

Displayed on a board like a wedding cake was the scale model of a modern urban residential and commercial development typical of and appropriate to, say, a downtown waterside location in an East Coast US city: eight towers of glass clustered in a crystalline formation.

The plans include a hotel, a leisure centre, a crèche, an underground car park, and apartments, and here’s Desmond Hickey inspecting the architect’s  “computer-generated shots”  with his “chip-shop fingerprints.”

Along a glittering limestone avenue with Ireland’s Eye in the background a man walked a bichon frise.

“Who’s this prick?” said Hickey. “He looks bent.”

Morgan leaned in to consider the photo.

“With apartment developments in wealthy areas, our firm find it’s advantageous to include representation of at least one member of the gay community. It’s a sector of the population with a high disposable income.”

“Keep him so,” Hickey decreed, “but no leezers.” He passed me the offending image. It was a man in a pair of calf-length shorts and a polo shirt. The man looked neither gay nor straight, he just looked preposterous. They all looked preposterous. Every last one of them was dressed for a Mediterranean summer. Sunglasses and shorts and sandals. This development promised another climate.

Desmond, a crude, opportunistic bully, is the perfect man for these excessive times. His marketing strategy for his grotty little apartments is brilliant and shows his understanding of the darker side of human nature. Is he a product of the real-estate madness or did his kind help fuel the boom? You have to love that word ‘boom’ because you know there’s going to be a big explosion somewhere in the not-too-distant future, and of course even as things spiral out of control in Tristram’s world with crazier and crazier real estate transactions taking place–flipping a hotel in London and “shifting a shopping mall in Dubai,” momentum gathers in the sinister, incautious power brokers of the Golden Circle–the men with ‘the terrible hunger in them, the insatiable drive to acquire,” until … well the collapse.

Most of the book’s humour (and there’s a great deal of it here,) in this very entertaining book comes from Desmond and not our narrator Tristram–two men of vast contrasts with the implied idea that Desmond is the ‘new’ man who needs the use of the gentry to open doors that once were closed to him while Tristram is a passive tool.  One of the very best scenes which epitomizes the insatiable hunger of Desmond and his cohorts takes place at Desmond’s ranch where gluttony, savagery and excess is the mantra for the day.

Hickey had built a mock-colonial ranch on the side of the East Mountain. He had cultivated the gorse and heather into lawn. A row of floodlit palm trees delineated the end of nature’s dominion over the moors and the beginning of the reign of the developer.

While for this reader the other world elements detracted from the novel, it’s still fairly easy to see why the author opted for this approach. I’ve listened to many people over the last few years complaining how they re-fi’d their modest homes to carry triple the original debt and then complain as the perceived value sinks beneath the horizon. One man told me with disgusted disbelief in his voice that “the banks are trying to tell me that I owe $450,000 when the house next door sold for $110,000. Now that’s nerve.” I did not point out to him that he’d re-fi’d several times and taken out over $300,000 in new mortgages. Where did that money go? No one switched mortgages on this fellow. He signed the papers and took the dough. Anyway the god-whatever-being-you-worship model meshes with the idea that the devil makes us do bad things which rather allows us to step from personal responsibility and lean on temptation/wickedness.  For this reader, the bubble was all about stepping away from personal responsibility & putting off the day of reckoning: the banks that agreed to fishy loans, the lenders who fudged income, the financial wizards who advised people to re-fi and “invest,” and the experts who now say that there was no way to predict the collapse.

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The Guts by Roddy Doyle

For fans of the much-loved book and film,  The Commitments, Jimmy Rabbitte, the man who managed the Dublin soul band, is back, but Roddy Doyle’s latest novel finds Jimmy Rabbitte, in his late forties, leading a middle class life and facing a recent diagnosis of bowel cancer. The novel opens with Jimmy at the pub breaking the news to his dad. Doyle cleverly constructs this scene so that Jimmy’s dramatic announcement is meshed with Jimmy Sr’s attempting to catch up with the modern world–more specifically to grasp the concept behind Facebook.

-D’yeh do the Facebook thing?

-What d’yeh mean?

-They were in the pub, in their corner. It wasn’t unusual anymore, having a pint with his father. In the early evening, before he went home after work. he’d phone, or his da would phone. It wasn’t an organized, regular thing.

It had started the day his da got his first mobile. His first call was to Jimmy.

-How’s it going’?

-Da?

-Yeah, me.

-How are yeh?

-Not too bad. I’m after gettin’ one o’ the mobiles.

-Great. I’m usin’ it now, like.

-Congratulations.

-Will we go for a pint? To celebrate.

-Grand. Good. yeah.

In between Jimmy Sr trying to understand exactly how someone “gets off with older women on Facebook,” his son drops the bomb of the cancer diagnosis. Jimmy has told his dad first and from that moment he has to break it to the rest of his family–his wife Aoife and their four children, and his business partner,  Noeleene.  Along the way with his battle with cancer (which includes chemo and surgery) he reconnects with back-up vocalist from The Commitments, Imelda Quirk  (“a few kilos heavier“), Outspan (another character from The Commitments) who’s even worse off than Jimmy, finds his long-estranged brother Leslie, decides to take trumpet lessons, and begins a project to track down some Irish songs from 1932.

the gutsThe Guts is essentially a mid-life crisis novel with the twist being a serious life-threatening (and altering0 experience instead of just the standard affair which grows from ennui, and in spite of the subject matter, the book manages to keep light and positive. It’s all in the attitude, Jimmy seems to think, which probably explains why he keeps telling everyone he’s “grand.” But of course he really isn’t, and Doyle depicts the swings that occur within Jimmy–the bitter and the sweet moments of life as he tries to carry everyone through his experience.

While the novel drifts into sentimentality at times, I’d argue that this is also an aspect of facing one’s own mortality–it’s a bitch to grasp, and the effort comes with understandable self-pity and a little teariness. Doyle was spot on to include sentimentality here, and it serves to reinforce the situation. Jimmy’s search for distractions and goals also seems real–a serious diagnosis leads to a self evaluation and a determination to re-direct one’s life, and we see that force here through Jimmy whose life was drifting along pleasantly enough until the diagnosis. But more than sentimentality, the novel is a nostalgic trip for fans of Doyle’s earlier work. Our hero, Jimmy has managed to surf the boom, the bust and internet commerce through his company, which sells old punk songs for download, and while the book may ostensibly be about disease and aging, on the flip side, it’s also concerned with showing the importance of living every wonderful moment given to us.

Roddy Doyle originally wrote The Commitments as the first part of The Barrytown Trilogy. The Snapper, and The Van (also both turned into film) form the rest of the trilogy. Doyle’s addition to the series now makes this a 4-parter.

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The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore

I have a soft spot for novels set in boarding houses. Perhaps it’s the interesting possibilities of a houseful of people connected only by the fact they pay rent to the owner of the home. The residents have no shared ground of tastes or interests, apart from a desire for consideration, quiet and cleanliness as so wonderfully conveyed in Russell Hoban’s Turtle Diary. This sort of social and economic arrangement is in decline, while ‘group homes’ seem to be in proliferation. Here in America, I see once beautiful Victorian mansions, in the shabbier areas of town, broken down into rooms for rent in “rooming houses.” Zoning rules effectively limit rooming houses, and these days rooming houses have an unsavoury reputation. For the purposes of Brian Moore’s novel, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, boarding houses are still a decent, respectable way of life for single people who live in modest circumstances, and who desire a safe, clean, quiet place to live.

The Lonely passion of Judith HearneThis particular shabby Belfast boarding house is owned and run by Mrs. Henry Rice, a middle-aged widow. She’s on the nosy side when it comes to her lodgers, and she’s also cheap when it comes to the provided breakfast which consists of tea and toast–with the exception of Sundays, when there’s a fried kipper for each lodger. The morning breakfast ceremony ensures some sort of communication, gives the aura of genteel respectability to the arrangement, reinforces Mrs. Rice’s authority while allowing her to keep an eye on her tenants and lends pretense to the idea that these are guests and not simply unconnected strangers in a boarding house. Breakfast times reveal the drab, parsimonious lives of the boarders, and in one wonderful scene, Mrs. Rice’s lay-about, would-be-poet son, Bernard, is fed bacon, eggs and fried bread while the lodgers sit there, disgruntled, with their toast and tea.

When the novel opens, a new tenant is moving in. It’s Miss Judith Hearne, a spinster in her 40s, who teaches piano for a living. There’s the impression that this latest move is one in a series in a life that’s in descent:

The first thing Miss Judith Hearne unpacked in her new lodging was the silver-framed photograph of her aunt. The place for her aunt, ever since the sad day of the funeral, was on the mantel piece of whatever bed-sitting-room Miss Hearne happened to be living in. And as she put her up now, the photograph eyes were stern and questioning, sharing Miss Hearne’s own misgivings about the condition of the bed-springs, the shabbiness of the furniture and the run-down part of Belfast in which the room was situated.

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne is an exploration of loneliness, hypocrisy, the human capacity for self-destruction, and the role of religion as compensation in a life that’s less than satisfactory. Judith Hearne has been able to ply the holes in her life with religion, but this is becoming more difficult. She spent her life devoted to nursing controlling, battle-axe Aunt D’Arcy, now dead. Judith is educated, raised to expect a genteel lifestyle, and could have pursued a career if her aunt had allowed it. Now in her 40s, she survives on a small annuity and considers herself ‘left on the shelf,’ while other women, namely Moira O’Neill, somehow or another snared a man into marriage. Judith looks jealously at married women and envies them, yet are her days for romance and love past?

Judith’s big event of the week is to visit the O’Neill family. Moira O’Neill, who according to Judith is “like some contented hen,” pities Judith while all of the other members of the family poke fun at her and find excuses to avoid her company. The O’Neills are not related to Judith, but she likes to pretend that she’s a maiden aunt. Underneath all of Judith’s coping and genteel behaviour, however, there’s anger and desperation.

You might as well forget about eligible men. Because you’re too late, you’ve missed your market. Then you’re up for any offers. Marked down goods. You’re up for auction , a country auction, where the auctioneer stands up and says what am I bid?  And he starts at a high price, saying what he’d like best. No offers. Then second best. No offers. Third? No offers. What am I bid, Moira? and somebody comes along, laughable, and you take him. If you can take him. Because it’s either that or back on the shelf for you. Back to your furnished rooms and your prayers. And your hopes.

 Judith’s life is already unraveling when she meets James Madden, the landlady’s brother. He’s recently returned from thirty years in America and, to Judith, he carries the aura of exoticism. James Madden, an opportunist with a 10,000 dollar insurance settlement in his pocket, is as lost as Judith. He sees that she’s educated and ladylike, and he also notes the few pieces of valuable jewelry she still owns. James and Judith are drawn to each other–partly because they become allies of sorts in the boarding house, but also Judith is the only person who believes Madden’s stories about his life in America. He says he wants to “marry again and settle down,” and as far as Judith’s concerned, there’s only one way to interpret that statement.

Much of the information about Judith’s descent is given only in hints. We gradually learn that there’s been a series of boarding houses, and then what are all those ‘stories’ spread about Judith and her old friend from convent, Edie? And what’s the real story about Edie, another unattractive single woman permanently locked up–possibly for her own good.

 At times, there’s a giddiness to Judith Hearne regarding the male sex that echoes in Stephen Benatar’s marvelous novel,  Wish Her Safe at Home.  Both Benatar’s middle aged female protagonist, Rachel Waring and Brian Moore’s Judith Hearne are given to flights of fancy when men are in the vicinity. Just as we wince when Rachel makes her social blunders with the male sex, we wince when Judith lathers herself up with rouge. The single female protagonists of Wish Her Safe at Home and The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne have a great deal in common, but, for this reader, Rachel, in her cocoon of insanity, has a degree of protection from the real world which Judith lacks. This makes Wish Her Safe at Home a very witty novel whereas The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, although it contains some funny scenes, is terribly sad.  We can laugh at Rachel Waring’s infatuation with various men as we know that reality will never penetrate her self-vision, but when Judith Hearne creates romantic fantasies, we know that painful reality is just around the corner. 

She watched the glass, a plain woman changing all to the delightful illusion of beauty. There was still time; for her ugliness was destined to bloom late, hidden first by the unformed gawkiness of youth, budding to plainness in young womanhood and now flowering to slow maturity in her early forties, it still awaited the subtle garishness which only decay to bring to fruition; a garishness which, when arrived at, would preclude all efforts at the mirror game.

So she played. Woman, she saw her womanish glass image. Pulled her hair sideways, framing her imagined face with tresses. Gipsy, she thought fondly, like a gipsy girl on a chocolate box.

There’s a film version of The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne which I’ve yet to see.

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Graveland by Alan Glynn

I tend to avoid reading thrillers, but there’s the consideration that thrillers cross over into the crime genre, and that is definitely true with the novels of Irish author Alan Glynn–an author who takes the term ‘conspiracy theory’ out of the trash can and makes you rethink the headlines that quickly fade and the scandals that sink from view. I first came across Glynn through the film Limitless which was based on his first novel, The Dark Fields. Somehow all that skullduggery in the dirty pharmaceutical industry fascinated me–well I believe that some very ugly business goes on in the R&D departments of the pharmaceutical giants. Just hang out on Cafepharma sometime and amuse yourself by watching the mudslinging.

GravelandAlan Glynn’s latest novel, Graveland brings back some repeat characters from Bloodland, but it isn’t necessary to have read the earlier novel before reading Graveland. Journalist Ellen Dorsey, who appeared in Bloodland, is a central character here, and Jimmy Gilroy who was a main character in Graveland has a small role. The shady background figure, James Vaughan, Chairman of the Oberon capital Group also appears in both novels.

Graveland begins with the seemingly random murders of two billionaires:  one a CEO of an investment bank, a “Wall Street behemoth, one of the Too Big To Fail brigade” and the other man is “Exponential Bob,” manager of a Wall Street hedge fund. With the first murder, investigative journalist, Ellen, who works for the fading investigative magazine Parallax, senses that there’s more to the story, and when the second murder occurs, she’s convinced she’s on the trail of something big. While the police seem to have no clues, Ellen begins digging deeply into internet forums, and there she comes across some possible pointers that become all too real.

We are also introduced to middle-aged Frank Bishop, a bitterly unhappy one-time architect. Cut loose from his profession, now post-boom, he’s lucky to find himself as a poorly paid manager in a small shop in a dying “suburban mall in upstate New York.” Frank knows that he should appreciate the job, but he finds it galling to continually bow and scrape to his customers and his much younger boss.

At forty-eight, and in the current climate, he could just as easily have landed on the scrap heap. There are days when this certainly feels like the scrap heap, but most of the time he just gets on with it.

He has bills to pay.

It’s as simple as that, his life is reduced to a monthly sequence of electronic bank transfers. College fees, allowances, rent, utilities, car food. Fuck.

Close his eyes for a minute and Frank can be right back before any of this got started, twenty-five, thirty years ago–a different world, and one in which this degree of a financial straitjacket was something he only ever associated with his parents, with that whole generation.

While Ellen investigates the two billionaire murders, another story thread follows Frank Bishop as he trips into meltdown mode. There’s also Craig Howley, the man who’s “number two” at Oberon Capital. Howley is subordinate to 84 year-old Chairman James Vaughan. Howley is hungry to take over the role of Chairman and thinks  a lot about how much longer, Vaughan, on his sixth plastic wife, can last. But Howley has to check his ambition:

Because with Jimmy Vaughan you don’t ever ever assume anything. You just keep watching, making connections, cutting deals, bringing it home.

The good news for Howley, and the bad news for Vaughan is that the latter’s health finally seems to be failing. Maybe. One day, he looks like he’s headed for the coffin, but the next he’s ready to work a strenuous day. Howley can’t make sense of it.

Glynn novels are all about connections, and the first few pages introduce a lot of characters. It’s not easy at this point to keep them straight or to work out which ones are important and which ones are insignificant. It was the same with Bloodland. But after a few chapters, you’re in and turning pages. Glynn’s presentation of distinctly separate but connected worlds follows what I call the Brazil Model. You’ve got the Favelas on ground zero and then all the way up to the dizzying heights of the super-wealthy–the people who always pursue more money, and aren’t too fussy about how they get it. Glynn’s novels illustrate that while these worlds are separate, they connect in unseen ways, and it’s these invisible connections that fuel this author’s work.

 Bloodland, partially set in the Congo was a very exciting book. Graveland lacks that pacing, but it’s still a good thriller and its portrayal of the mostly invisible (to us plebs) powermongers, those who compose the 1%, is piercing and prescient.

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The Light of Amsterdam by David Park

This year, I wanted to read something with a Christmas feel to it, and that brings me to The Light of Amsterdam by David Park–not quite a Xmas novel, but Xmas is mentioned, so as far as I am concerned it counts. Plus the novel depicts people on holiday, and regular readers of this blog know that I have a weakness for novels that take people on holiday.

The Light from AmsterdamDavid Park’s The Light of Amsterdam begins, quite beautifully, with the funeral procession for George Best. Watching the cars and remembering Best’s glorious career is Alan, a divorced, middle-aged, sad sack of an Art teacher who, after twenty-two years of marriage which culminated in a pathetic moment of listless infidelity, finds himself alone and living in a grotty flat. As Alan watches the procession, he experiences an “unsettling sensation” and connects with the life of the dead footballer through the memory of a lost autograph. It was something he should have treasured, but he can’t remember now how he even lost it. This thread of lost things–be they people, moments, feelings, or relationships, appears throughout the novel which finds three characters on the brink of some sort of change.

Alan, who’s facing crises in both his personal and professional lives, has arranged a nostalgic weekend trip to Amsterdam which includes a concert by Bob Dylan, and he’s guilted by his ex into dragging his disaffected teenage son along for the ride. Another main character is Marion, a 54-year-old who coowns a busy, successful garden centre with her husband, Richard. When Marion receives the gift of a gym membership from her husband, she’s convinced that it’s evidence of her husband’s dissatisfaction with her, and so she plans something significant for the weekend in Amsterdam.

And this present-and she can’t even begin to think of it as a present-of a year’s membership of this swanky fitness and leisure complex was filled with unanswered questions and once again it confused her that a man who could speak so directly in business continued to be someone unable to express himself openly in other matters.

The third main character is Karen, the single mother who pulls extra shifts at her two cleaning jobs in order to pay for the fancy bang-up wedding her selfish, vain daughter Shannon demands. Shannon has organised a hen party to Amsterdam, and her mother is included. This may sound like fun, but all the guests are required to dress as American Indians, and while that style may flatter Shannon and her youthful friends, it serves to make middle-aged Karen feel out of place and rather ridiculous.

We’re given some illuminating glimpses into the lives of these three main characters: Alan who experiences moments of disorientation in his new life, Marion who suspects her husband may be having an affair with a Polish employee, and Karen who’s accused of theft at the nursing home. So when these three people take a flight to Amsterdam in December 2005, they’re troubled and preoccupied by other concerns. 

Once the main characters and their personal lives were introduced, I had a feeling that I could predict the direction the plot would take. It’s unfortunate when that happens–especially when the predictions become true, and because some of the plot is predictable, the interest here isn’t so much what the characters do as much as what they think in private moments:

You come to a point in your life when you’re weary of thinking of others and when for the very first time you can’t think of anyone other than yourself and suddenly you want to refind who that self is, in the hope that it’s a better, happier self than the one you find yourself with now.

Another problem with the novel is that all three characters are downers. While Alan’s son is in the throes of teenage angst, the three main characters, Marion, Karen and Alan are definitely mired in painful, middle-aged angst. No fun-filled spontaneity here. Alan is obviously having a difficult time accepting the fact that it’s time to move on; Marion has a lot to be grateful for and doesn’t seem to realise that she’s haunted by her own aging rather than her spouse’s wandering eyes, and Karen, well Karen just needs the courage to tell her daughter to think about someone else for a change. She’s spent a lifetime indulging her only child, and that indulgence has fed Shannon’s selfish streak. Just as Alan wonders how he can reach and reconnect with his troubled teenage son, Karen realises, rather poignantly, that the selfishness built around Shannon’s preoccupation with appearances, is a monster of her own making.

Both Alan and Karen “feel” genuine; I wasn’t so convinced by Marion, but I liked the author’s writing style and the way in which we see glimpses of these characters’ private thoughts and doubts. The author conveys the sense that these characters–all from different walks of life–find themselves shipwrecked in lives they don’t want for a range of reasons–even though those lives are built on a series of choices. They all feel dismay, on one level or another, about how their lives reached this point. There’s one marvellous scene when Alan is called in to talk to the head of his department, Stan, a man who “once looked like a Belfast Ginsberg and who as a young man thought that the purpose of art was to shock and disturb” but who is now weighed down by department politics and complaints from students about Alan’s noticeable lack of focus. Told by Stan that he must “evolve or face extinction,” Alan has mixed feelings about hoping to publish a paper or whip up an art show, and yet what are his options? Will he be able to abandon his lethargy and become productive once again?

The novel ends on a note of optimism that’s shadowed by the idea that in order for life to change, it’s sometimes necessary to overcome ourselves, our weaknesses and our prejudices, and for some of us, that’s both a tall order and a stumbling block.

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Rebel Streets: A Novel of the Irish Troubles by Tom Molloy

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.

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