Thursday 19 October 2017

Book Review: Knowing Women - James Lawless

Surgical dissection of a Dublin bachelor

Hilary A White

Knowing Women

James Lawless

CreateSpace, €12.60

Laurence J Benbo represents a demographic which perhaps doesn't get its fair share of literary attention; the late-30s Southside Dublin bachelor, tied down solely by their profession and exiled from most friends and family by not having a wife and child of their own. When he clocks off from his job at Print 21 and totters home to his North Circular Road flat, all Laurence has to occupy himself is smut, the last addiction that he can exercise in private as he approaches middle-age.

His wandering eyes happen upon the comely Belarusian dimensions of Jadwiga in a park during his lunch break. He's awkward with women, especially since his relationship with Deborah ended, so he stalks the younger Jadwiga around the city salaciously, to her strip club workplace and finally her front door, which she unexpectedly opens for him.

Soon afterwards, Laurence wins €100,000 on a scratchcard but so vacuous is his existence that overpriced gifts for Jadwiga are all he can think of to spend on.

His life gets severely more interesting when news of his windfall reaches Maoiliosa and Ena, his younger, more masculine brother and poisonous sister-in-law. From their Malahide home overlooking their moored yacht, the couple concoct a plan to blackmail the money from Laurence by framing him for interfering with their young daughter Lydia.

The title of James Lawless's latest is a clue to the turbulent thought patterns that swerve around Laurence's ever-pondering mind where the opposite sex is concerned. He's rather paranoid and tends to live in a state of heightened anxiety and awareness of women, both in what they might take from him or provide carnally for him. His fading mother is losing her faculties in the nursing home, dropping obscure bites of information between catatonic lulls. He has a suspicion of both the coke-guzzling Ena and his mentally abusive co-worker Miss U Ryan, and for good reason.

A sad encounter with his ex Deborah, the only woman who loved him, verges on traumatic. The final straw is Jadwiga, however, who upends his world when he spies her consorting with Maoiliosa in her club.

Lawless's antihero is a tragic template, a less fatalistic version of the character of Brandan in Steve McQueen's Shame, or a more sober, contemplative rewriting of someone from the pages of Chuck Palahniuk. On the face of it, Laurence has little to feel that hard-done-by about his lot (these are first-world problems) but he is really only living a half-life, one of anonymity and aimlessness where he is forced by social norms to sneakily treat his solitude through magazines and websites. But when it transpires that one-time golden child Maoiliosa, in whose shadow Laurence dwelled for most of his youth, is arguably more dysfunctional, Lawless gets to the crux of his argument – what is normal, and who are society's real deviants? Perhaps we have no right to judge the Laurences of this world.

Self-published, prolific and possessed of a lively, fleet-footed style that brims with intellect and poeticism (he has a study of modern poetry, 2009's Clearing The Tangled Wood, to his name), Lawless is an author who we should perhaps start taking more seriously.

As in last year's Finding Penelope, he portrays a protagonist with a breadth that is effortlessly involving, dismantling "a nobody" and presenting them as "a somebody". Admittedly, this often involves speaking through Laurence in lurid, pulpy tones but his ability to treat the ultra-ordinary with a surgeon's forceps is quite impressive.

Sunday Independent

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