‘The Van’ by Roddy Doyle

13452626Thirty or so years ago, in modern parlance, Roddy Doyle was trending. His first two novels, The Commitments and The Snapper, had successfully transferred to the big screen. And the third in the Barrytown Trilogy, The Van, was shortlisted for the 1991 Booker Prize. (Doyle went on to win the Booker two years later with Paddy Ha Ha Ha).

But today, the working-class Barrytown vernacular of the Rabbitte family wears thin. The ups and downs of these Dublin residents and friends have been charted throughout the trilogy – with the expectation that with such low personal and communal esteem, everything is doomed to failure. And whereas previous Barrytown narratives have focussed on the younger members, The Van looks to the older generation of Jimmy Rabbitte Sr and mate Bimbo.

They’ve both been laid off from work – Jimmy Sr from the off, Bimbo about a quarter into the book.

Hearing and seeing the previous family breadwinner cope with his diminished responsibility is the strength of The Van – a man bought so low he relies on his teenage son slipping him a fiver so that he can afford to buy a round at the pub (as long as there’s only himself, Bimbo and Bertie).

Jimmy Sr spends his endless days lost – checking out the library, playing with his grandchild, walking the dog – and without any sense of purpose. It changes when Bimbo gets laid off from the bakery: Jimmy can share his new found knowledge of the area. But it’s a hollow victory. Both men soon become lost and aimless.

And then Bimbo buys the decrepit van and goes into partnership with Jimmy Sr. A fish and chip business just in time for the World Cup (as long as they can get it clean) with plans to set themselves up outside the pub or prime coastal spots. Against the odds, it’s a financial windfall for both men in spite of the low quality goods they’re serving through the hatch.

But it’s Bimbo’s wife, Maggie, who has the business acumen. Decisions are made without any reference to Jimmy: but then Bimbo bought the van, so is it a real partnership? Enclosed in cramped conditions, temperatures rise and their relationship shifts and changes.

Farcical humour abounds as Jimmy and Bimbo slip and slide through the narrative (literally – a little too much chip fat, ketchup and oil gets spilt in the confines of the van) or a gang of kids rock the vehicle ‘for the crack’. But, overall, it just ain’t funny.

Pints (in great quantities) are drunk; comments are made about friends, neighbours, passing females; food is served along with a volley of wisecracks; the achievements of the Irish football team celebrated – all in a novel that is predominantly dialogue. ‘Hilarious’, ‘wonderfully funny’, ‘faultless comic writing’ are all plaudits writ large on the cover.

Maybe in the 90s it was. But tastes [sic] change and The Van is as hard on the palate as the burgers Jimmy and Bimbo serve up. Doyle’s novel was shortlisted for the 1991 Booker prize, but lost out to Ben Okri and The Famished Road.

‘Vernon God Little’ by DBC Pierre

9780571215164An assured debut novel, Vernon God Little is a rites-of-passage full of sour and coruscating verbal wit that verges on the farcical. Akin to the vicious satire of the likes of Vonnegut, it’s a telling indictment of small town America’s mindless consumer culture and the glorification of dysfunction – with 15 year-old Vernon Little its victim. As the narrator, it’s Vernon and his perspective of his 15 minutes of fame that the story is told.

A gun tragedy at the High School in Martirio, Texas has left 16 students dead, including the perpetrator, schoolboy Jesus Navarro Rosario. But with Jesus dead, the grieving town is left without a sense of closure or justice. Cue Vernon God Little. As the killer’s best friend, he survived, evidence of his guilt. As national media descend on the town, so the Sheriff’s department move on Vernon to prove his collusion.

Vernon God Little is told in five acts, with the first two finding Vernon – like his friend, Jesus, an outsider in the close-knit community – struggling to make sense of what’s happening around him. Accused of being an accessory, the only people he cares about are either dead or appear to be more concerned with fame and worldly goods (his mother misses all legal appointments due to the delivery of a fridge). Cool as he thinks he might be, Vernon in reality is a mere boy way out of his depth of understanding. And it’s about to get a lot worse as news crews swarm into town.

Things do get a lot worse as Vernon makes a run for it and flees to Mexico, but his too brief sojourn sees him arrested, returned to Texas to face trial for 34 murders and, on being found guilty, is sentenced to death.

Farcical or what? Yet beneath that over-the-top course of events is a scathing critique as reality television, fast food, religion, the death penalty all come under Pierre’s comic microscope.

In spite of being in Mexico, Vernon is positively identified for more and more murders across Texas. A reality television programme is introduced where death-row inmates are put on camera as entertainment with television audiences deciding the order of executions – which in themselves are televised.

In Vernon Little, Australian DBC Pierre has created a fabulously confused commentator who is in part an archetypal contradictory adolescent, part mouthpiece for the author’s corrosive opinions.

The high-octane Vernon Little God won the 2003 Booker Prize a rank outsider when the longlist was announced, beating favourite Monica Ali and Brick Lane.

‘The Testament of Mary’ by Colm Toibin

the-testament-of-maryTo say Colm Toibin’s 2012 novella is controversial is an understatement. The Catholic World Report described it, on publication, as “the latest piece of Catholic-hating detritus” and stated “May God yet forgive and save the eternally precious soul of the profoundly sad and angry author of this tragic, worthless lie.”

Yet The Testament of Mary had already received a degree of critical mauling when it first appeared as a solo stage performance in 2011 at the Dublin Theatre Festival and, in 2013, on Broadway. Protestors asserted the depiction of Mary was blasphemous, with the production closing after only two weeks into its scheduled 12-week run.

The novella was written following the initial performances in Dublin, with the language and imagery reportedly significantly starker. The result is hard going, in spite of its brevity of just 104 pages.

This is not an overly religious tract or a rewriting of stories and gospels from the New Testament. Toibin is writing of a mother’s pain and loss as, as an old woman living far from her home, she reflects on the days leading up to the death of her son. For her own safety, Mary fled her home in Nazareth and now lives the last of her days in Ephesus (modern day Turkey), far from friends and family.

Toibin’s Mary is not pious or pliant (the traditional presentation) – if anything she is angry. Her son (she never uses his name) was surrounded by “misfits, only children, stammerers, men who could not look women in the eye.” Witnessing the inhumanity of the crucifixion and the humiliation of being forced to drag his own cross, the fact that he died to redeem the world was, for Mary, “not worth it.”

The Testament of Mary is just that – the voice of a mother grieving over the loss of a son – not only in death but also in life, taken as he was to “greater things”. She comments on some of the better known Biblical stories – the raising of Lazarus, turning water into wine – with a level of cynicism in keeping with the scepticism of the author.

But this aside, the musings in her grief and guilt maketh not a particularly interesting novella. The problem with The Testament of Mary is, like the last days of Mary’s life, exceedingly dull. It may be well written (as one would expect from such a consummate penman) but its ultimately plain boring.

Colm Toibin made the shortlist for the 2013 Man Booker Prize (his third) but lost out not to the bookies favourite, Jim Crace and Harvest, but New Zealand author Eleanor Catton and her mammoth 800+ page epic, The Luminaries.

‘Breakfast on Pluto’ by Patrick McCabe

PatrickMcCabe_BreakfastOnPlutoI completely lost patience with this (thankfully short) novel.

Breakfast on Pluto is the dysfunctional story of Patrick ‘Pussy’ Braden, a transvestite living in the Irish village of Tyreelin near to the border with Northern Ireland. It follows her story (and fantasies) as, in her search for the perfect man who will keep her in clothes from Biba and Chanel Number 5 (it’s set in the 70s and early 80s), she moves to London. But life as a prostitute and, lately, a target for the police in their search to apportion blame for the spate of IRA bombings in the city, she returns to Ireland.

It’s not the story itself that’s the problem – it’s the chosen style of author Patrick McCabe. Macabre and grotesque in tone, the dark humour is delivered at a manic, hysterical pace with no sense of continuity.

In the space of a few pages, Pussy fantasises about exacting revenge on her father (the parish priest), searching for her beautiful birthmother (a spitting image of Mitzi Gaynor) and pleasing the latest sugar daddy. Stylistically, her madcap fantasies reflect the emotional helter-skelter of Pussy herself. And mixed with Pussy’s everyday are the political events of the ‘troubles’ in Ireland at the time – the execution of informers, bombing campaigns.

But Breakfast on Pluto falls short in emotional engagement. Manic in its delivery, there’s a lack of connection with Pussy or any of the other (sketchily presented) characters. You want to like her, but the book gives very little help. And the humour lauded by critics (“wild, hilarious, merciless…” The Sunday Independent) generally passed me by – again! (It seems I have a ‘problem’ with books written in the 90s that are labelled in some way as funny – see Paddy Ha Ha Ha (Roddy Doyle) and Under the Frog (Tibor Fischer).

Patrick McCabe’s second Booker Prize shortlist, Breakfast on Pluto lost out to Ian McEwan and Amsterdam at the 1998 awards.

‘The Colour of Blood’ by Brian Moore

28576Cardinal Stephan Bem’s task is a thankless one. In an unnamed eastern bloc country, the primate of its Catholic Church strives for a moral cohesion that will prevent the country being plunged into civil strife and possible invasion from its more powerful neighbours.

To the anti-communists, Bem has sold out to a repressive regime and its atheism: to the state police, the Cardinal is “a sworn enemy of socialism.” Neither side trusts him – and the rise of anti-State pamphleteering with more than a hint of Church involvement puts Bem, the Church and the country at risk. An attempt on his life swiftly followed by his kidnapping brings matters to a head and places the Catholic Church in direct opposition to president General Urban and his authoritarianism.

In its deceptively simplistic narrative and language, The Colour of Blood is a political thriller as well as a meditation on faith in the face of social adversity. Written at the time of the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, the role of the Church is questioned by Moore through the conservative musings of Bem. He has achieved a degree of compromise and self-determination for the Church – but to others, he should be fomenting open-rebellion.

Likely to have been more topical and moot at its 1987 publication – hence its shortlisting for the Booker Prize but losing out to Penelope Lively and Moon Tiger – Brian Moore’s short (187 pages) novel is something of a diversion. An entertaining and thoughtful diversion, but a diversion nevertheless.

‘The Sea’ by John Banville

The_Sea_John_BanvilleI like the writings of John Banville – his lyrical, stylistic prose, whilst dense and challenging, is poised and precise. Yet I disliked The Sea immensely.

It is essentially a reflective journal on memory and loss. Semi-retired art historian Max Mordern attempts to come to terms with the recent death of his wife Anna and understand the long ago disappearance of childhood friends Chloe and Myles Grace.

Choosing to stay in the coastal holiday home favoured by the Grace family (now a bed and breakfast run by Miss Vavasour) ostensibly to write and escape the immediacy of grief, Mordern instead ducks and weaves through recollections of his first childhood fantasy, his first love, his parents and the past years dealing with the slow death of Anna. Like all memories, there’s no linear recall and a reflection on a moment with his wife can seamlessly lead to a picnic with the Graces or Mordern’s mother coping with being abandoned by his father. And, like so many of Banville’s ‘heroes’, there’s always the bottle in which to find solace (in Max’s case, brandy).

There’s a whole litany of interesting characters in The Sea – Miss Vavasour and long-term resident of the B&B, the Colonel, in particular. But Mordern is not one of them. To his credit, whilst seeing himself as a victim, he at least avoids self-pity: this is not a maudlin tragedy. If anything, it is a meditation. But Banville has over-invested his middlebrow elegaic fictional prose in The Sea. It actually becomes tiresome and off-point.

Banville himself believes The Sea to be a work of art. This view was certainly shared by the judges of the 2005 Booker Prize – or at least the majority. A non-unanimous decision reliant on the chair’s casting vote presented the award to him over Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. But to my mind this ‘piece of art’ propounds one of elitism and intellectual exclusivity. Banville is challenging – but in The Sea he seems to get carried away. There are times in the book when the clarity of purpose becomes apparent and the narrative moves forwards (or backwards) clearly. But too, too often this is for short periods only and the intellectual snobbery takes over.

‘The Book of Evidence’ by John Banville

The_Book_of_EvidenceUnreliable narrator Freddie Montgomery, sitting in prison awaiting trial for murder, recounts his story of just how he finds himself liable to face life imprisonment in an Irish jail.

From a life of privileged dysfunction to a man in public hiding via many years living abroad, Montgomery, desperate to find the money he so flippantly borrowed, kills not for financial gain but simply because he can. Redolent of Patricia Highsmith’s amoral Tom Ripley, Freddie’s relatively carefree life is about to end for the murder of a young maid. In the wrong place at the wrong time, the young woman walked into the room as the louche narrator is stealing a (not particularly valuable) portrait.

On the run, he hides out in the large but rundown home of Charlie, an old family friend. But with few leads, the police are initially clueless and Freddie’s sojourn is hardly the furtive existence normally associated with being in hiding. It is his self-justification and arrogance that eventually lead to his downfall and the narration he writes to the judge and jury of his future trial.

That that narration maybe unreliable – Montgomery’s own ‘book of evidence’ to the events ­– is moot but irrelevant. What The Book of Evidence is is a wry, intelligent and restrained account of his crime and events leading up to it.

A consummate yet pellucid wordsmith, Banville’s intriguing novel is simultaneously thought-provoking, challenging (the words echolalia, balanic, ataraxic, meniscus and ichor appearing in two short paragraphs as early as page 19), sardonic (Banville references the use of those same words in the next paragraph) and witty.

It does take a little while to get into it, but once past page 19, The Book of Evidence completely draws you in. Shortlisted for the 1989 Booker Prize, it lost out to Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day.

‘Paddy Ha Ha Ha’ by Roddy Doyle

screen-shot-2013-05-31-at-09-28-28The first reaction to knowing Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha was the recipient of the Booker Prize is that 1993 must have been a minor year in the literary world. But closer observation reveals that not only were David Malouf (Remembering Babylon) and Carol Shields (The Stone Diaries) shortlisted, but it was also the year of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong and Pat Barker’s The Eye in the Door (to name but a few).

So just how did this occasionally engaging but somewhat dreary, slow and painful lament for the death of childhood walk away with one of the most prestigious of all literary prizes?

Roddy Doyle certainly has his plaudits – his first three novels, The Commitments, The Snapper and The Van (all set in working class northern Dublin and known as the Barrytown Trilogy) were hugely popular and adapted for screen (large and small). But sadly, his fourth, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha missed the ribald humour of Doyle’s earlier works.

Seen through the eyes and ears of 10 year-old Paddy Clarke, the eldest of four, the novel explores approximately one year of growing up in the changing world of the late 1960s. It is the story of family, school and friends, with the local lads running amok but firmly kept in check by parents and schoolteachers.

Spritely at first, a sense of inevitable doom pervades Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha as we slip from Paddy and his mates strutting the streets to a more poignant awareness of the disintegrating relationship of his parents. But there’s little sense of change in pace or prose and it is this repetition of unemotional observation by Doyle that leaves Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha somewhat flat and disappointing.

‘The Gathering’ by Anne Enright

9780099501633Sadly, I do not share the critical love bestowed on Irish writer Anne Enright’s fourth novel, winner of the 2007 Man Booker Prize.

The Gathering had all the potential of being a deeply touching story – the narrator’s inner journey from a young girl, one of nine surviving children, to a 39 year-old married woman organising the funeral of her brother, Liam.

The closest in age to her recently deceased sibling, Veronica looks back on an extended family life in Dublin, with particular emphasis on the life and times of their paternal grandmother, Ada. Veronica is looking for an understanding of the wasted life of Liam, an alcoholic who committed suicide in England. She believes something happened when they were children staying at the home of Ada.

Anne Enright unquestionably writes beautifully – but her story as a whole has no focus, a split time narrative resulting in a disjointed, disconnected and often confusing flow (too often a return to the previous paragraph for clarity was required with the realisation that a new thought, time or even character was now the focus). The present and the past merge too often in a stream of consciousness where the poetic language may flow, but which suddenly leaves you unsure who or what is being described…

Added to which, none of the characters (where they have been developed) are particularly likeable or fully rounded.

In short, The Gathering is a disappointing book that misses on so many levels. And it makes you lose the will to carry on reading – not a good thing in a novel!