'A Sunday. After the roast beef and Yorkshire, apple pie and tea, we cleared the dishes and clambered onto the kitchen table. We poured Moet et Chandon over each other."
That's the opening of Shane Connaughton's third novel -- his first, A Border Station, was short-listed for a Guinness Peat Award and, of course, his screenplay for My Left Foot was nominated for an Oscar.
Big Parts is a champagne romp, but the bubbles are bitter. Set about 30 years ago in one of those housing trust terraces that are woven into the fabric of London's personality, the story revolves around a trust's attempt to redecorate one of its houses, in effect to evict the tenants. The house certainly needs redecoration: the rising damp has reached the attic.
As romps require, the characters are close to, or on the far side of, craziness. The narrator, an ex-jailbird layabout, is married to a high-grade Westminster civil servant. She is sane, gorgeous, slightly odd: "Zeta-Jones, Paltrow, Eddie Izzard all rolled into one". He loves her madly, but that doesn't stop him making obscene suggestions to the babe in charge of the eviction.
Up in the attic are the ancient Freddie Parts and his young lover, April. She is straight out of a Francis Bacon painting, her mouth opened in wide silence "as if shouting hopelessly in nightmare". Freddie puts her background brutally in context: "Buggered by her father from an early age. Isn't Croydon a beastly place?" Part of the reason for April's insanity is that Freddie keeps her manacled to an armchair -- she ends up horribly, hanging out a window, in the chair, on fire.
Freddie is a pervert, an English patriot, a failed painter, novelist and playwright. As the book opens, he has just finished a play which features a machine designed to emasculate the leading actor -- it is not a part anyone wants to audition for. Story, though, is not the reason for reading this book. Although it has a certain mad coherence, the plot is essentially a series of dramatic set-pieces, a pretext for displays of virtuoso comic writing about people and places.
The people are uniformly grotesque. The singer Madonna, for instance, has biceps "as hard as grain-fed rats". The men in particular are tormented by their bodies, afflicted by every kind of embarrassing ailment.
What is most laughable about these males is their sexual preferences. Freddie, for instance, likes to dress up as a woman and a man at the same time -- a creepy variation of an old Tommy Cooper sketch.
As with the men, so too with the places. The house and the area (somewhere close to Camden Town) are rotten with decay. Connaughton's London is Dickensian, as dingy and thickly populated with grimy eccentrics as Bleak House. But whereas Dickens' characters are mostly natives, the Cockneys here are as exotic as cockatoos and, at least verbally, a good deal filthier. This London is both forlorn and heartless: "In the wilderness of the city, the crying voices are completely indifferent to anything said back to them."
As well as Dickens, other writers come to mind. The energy of Tom Sharpe's Wilt novels, for instance, drives the pace. And there is a vein of Swiftian satire -- Jonathan's modest proposal that Dubliners should eat the babies of the poor surely inspired Shane to suggest Londoners might feed useless old folk to their pets. Anyone for Pedigree Mum?
This is a savagely indignant, deeply disillusioned and dark book. But the quality of the writing and the irony of the pessimism illuminate the gloom. As the layabout's long-suffering wife says: "The sun is always shining. Especially above the clouds." Almost every page harbours a similiarly poetic phrase or image. At its astringently sad best Big Parts is big art. Sighs matter.
The US edition of Brian Lynch's New Island novel 'The Winner of Sorrow' will be launched by the Dalkey Archive Press in Washington on March 31.