Ticklish read with a laugh on every page
Memoir: Adventures of a Wonky-Eyed Boy, Jason Byrne, Gill & Macmillan, hdbk, 392 pages, €15.99
There's a good reason those listicles from the 1980s and 1990s do exceedingly brisk business on social media. The soporific, sepia glow of nostalgia is an opiate for the masses, and in Ireland, we do nostalgia particularly well. White dog poo, altar boys, Tamagotchis, two-channel land - we frolic and bathe in our commonality, spending our days in a whirlwind of incredulous bafflement at the passing of time.
Yet liking a Facebook post entitled 'You Know You're a Kid From the 80s When…' is one thing. Quite another is a trip down memory lane presented in piercingly vivid Technicolor, where we're transported back into living rooms during the time that interior design forgot. It's been done before, and often to impressive effect: Chris O'Dowd's Moone Boy, for instance, was a charming, cuddly look-back at small-town Ireland in the 1990s.
Comedian Jason Byrne treads similar ground in Adventures of a Wonky-Eyed Boy. It may be bereft of the whimsy of O'Dowd's project, yet the Ballinteer comedian's brand of ebullient, energetic comedy runs through the book.
That Byrne is a seasoned, Perrier Award-winning comedian has stood him in supremely good stead in his storytelling. Most of the book's heft comes from Byrne's unfiltered, charmingly rough-hewn voice. He is a master of setting the scene, turning the Ludlow estate in his native Ballinteer to a suburban shadowlands where redoubtable mums use slippers as a weapon of choice, and anxiety-stricken dads make haste to the pub 'to calm down' and then buy Ford Cortinas, skinful and all, on the way home. It's a gorgeously familiar topography, with its fancy paper and its Community Games and its locks on the landline phone (in one passage, Byrne's mother Eithne gets a call from a radio station, after applying for a phone-in competition. She mislays the key to the phone, and so the cash prize is regrettably lost to the ether).
Byrne moves from vignette to vignette with impressive vim, barely giving the reader pause to recover from one delightful memory recall to the next. In what appears to be an auspicious start, the ginger, pale baby Jason is handed to his mother, who cries tears for all the wrong reasons.
"She could have shagged a platypus and I still would have come out better than this," he writes. Still, he grows up to be a boy with intriguing hobbies and skills, among them being a 'professional rat' (his wonky eye, the result of amblyopia, always gave the game away) and "opening sweets inside pockets". As happens with many middle children, he is the unfortunate benefactor of clothing hand-me-downs and doesn't have too many childhood photos. His older brother, Eric, persuades him that the grease that accumulated on the wall behind the cooker is caramel; worse again, he believes him time and time again.
With not a lick of self-pity, Byrne lurches from moments of disgrace as an altar boy to eye operations in Crumlin hospital, and then on to his first kiss in The Tunnel. First John Player Blue, first metalwork class accident (singed eyebrows), first fall out of a tree; each moment is recalled with gleeful, infectious relish. Joyous though his childhood was, it wasn't without a hint of dark underbelly. As with most working-class households in 1980s' Dublin, the hum of low-level anxiety - over bills, over redundancies, over hospitalised children, over mild heart attacks - ran through the home like tedious white noise. Yet, as Byrne recalls, there's something wondrous in the earthy tenacity of these suburbanites, and much comedy to be found in the family's darkest moments (his mother's first words after hearing on the phone that her husband has had a small heart attack: "I've not got the big shop done. I'll kill him").
Ultimately, it's Byrne's drawing of his parents Paddy and Eithne that are the book's strongest suit. Eithne, an Everymam, is staunchly Catholic, and prone to putting a 'posh voice' on when showing the new bathroom suite - gotten in time for the 'Confo' - to neighbours. Paddy, we hear with metronomic regularity, isn't made of money. Yet he is the king of all he surveys, a man for whom the pub isn't just a leisure pursuit; it's a lifeline.
Those who grew up in the Dublin suburbs, and even beyond, will relate to a frightful number of Byrne's rites of passage. For that reason, this is a ticklish read, with a delicious laugh to be found on every page. Those from further afield will find plenty to like, too; they say the past is a foreign country to which we can never return, but through Byrne's (wonky) eyes, it's a place we're all joyously familiar with, and can come back to time and time again.