Sunday 22 October 2017

Stunning debut with black humour and emotion

Galway author Alan McMonagle could land a literary prize for superb Irish fiction Ithaca
Galway author Alan McMonagle could land a literary prize for superb Irish fiction Ithaca
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JP O'MALLEY

Galway author Alan McMonagle could land a literary prize for superb Irish fiction Ithaca

Jason Lowry is approaching his 12th birthday, and living in a bog-hole town, slap bang in the middle of Ireland. It's the summer of 2009, and most of the shops are closed down. Everyone Jason meets is reminiscing about a time, not so long ago, when you could get a loan of €20,000 from Barry the bank clerk with no questions asked.

But that was then. Factories are closing down now, youngsters are packing their bags to leave for foreign shores, and even the auld fellas in McMorrow's pub have taken to playing a card game called 'suicide'.

Jason lives with his ma on the side of town they call the ghetto. Ma works part-time in the Hungry Worm Cafe. But she can't earn enough money to pay the bills. Most days, Ma and Jason spend their time in a rat-infested squalid hovel: watching episodes of The Sopranos, and talking about what a great fella Marlon Brando was back in the day.

That's when Ma is not dodging c**thook the fridge repair man, bo**ox the boiler fixer, or some other swine from around town, who is looking for her to cough up on her debts. Jason, meanwhile, has a few questions that have yet to be answered. Who exactly is his father? Is it Flukey Nolan, the town's charismatic badass, with a poet's soul?

Or maybe it's Mario Devine, the town's star salesman, who keeps telling Ma about how great Paris is in spring.

And who exactly is this girl that Jason regularly meets down at the Swamp: a mysterious rising pool of fetid water on the outskirts of town. Why do we never learn her name? And why is she always talking about mythical Greek heroes in far-off lands?

About half-way into reading Ithaca, I began thinking of certain books that potentially may have influenced Alan McMonagle, as he was piecing together this intriguing story. Two cult classics immediately sprung to mind: Patrick McCabe's The Butcher Boy, and JD Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye.

Like the two books mentioned, McMonagle uses the first-person narrative of a disillusioned teenager - who shows strong signs of mental illness - to try and explain the adult world of so-called reality. What we end up with instead, though, is a melancholic tragic farce.

However, to accuse McMonagle of simply emulating his literary influences, or creating pastiche literature here, would be to misjudge the sheer strength of this brilliant debut novel.

It's pretty rare to find a rookie novelist writing with such conviction, authority and style. But McMonagle's prose has all three in spades. This is top-notch stuff, and I would be extremely surprised if the Galway writer does not land himself a couple of literary prizes in the months ahead. There is an originality of voice here that I have not come across in Irish fiction for quite some years now.

And through the prism of Jason's energetic first-person narrative - that's bursting with black humour, tenderness, and emotion in equal measure - the socially deprived world he is growing up in comes into focus with absolute clarity.

The rather strange relationship between Jason and Ma is the glue that holds this narrative together. And as that relationship gets more complicated, Jason begins to descend further into his own thoughts, and then gently slips away from reality altogether.

I nearly died laughing, and was exceptionally moved too, reading this stylish, dark existential tale: which explores the fine line between the language of dreams and reality, and between the material and mythological world too.

Alan McMonagle will be reading from Ithaca in Hodges Figgis, Dawson St, on Tuesday, March 14 at 6.30pm

FICTION

Ithaca

Alan McMonagle

Picador

€14.99

Sunday Independent

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