Tragi-comic debut brims with electricity and spirit
Fiction, Ithaca, Alan McMonagle, Picador, hdbk, 320 pages, €14.99
Recession fiction in this country has at times been themed by a void in accountability (see Tana French's grisly ghost-estate chiller Broken Harbour, Donal Ryan's The Spinning Heart or, at a speculative level, the feral lawlessness of Kevin Barry's titular dystopia, City of Bohane). As lives were ruined, no one was to blame and everyone was. A perfect environment to not only manufacture excuses for sleights on neighbours but also to actively prey on them.
For the writer Alan McMonagle, a more muck-strewn version of midlands Ireland circa 2009 is similarly depicted in this much-anticipated debut novel (following two short-story collections - Liar Liar in 2008 and Psychotic Episodes in 2013). Ithaca, as the Homeric title suggests, is about the search for paradise, a getting-out rather than a caving-in, and gifts the reading world with a young voice that is as winningly resilient as it is tragic.
As a child growing up in Longford, McMonagle buried himself in Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn as well as Greek mythology. A more immediate signpost here, however, is the dank wasteland his family home backed on to and which is fed into to the world of the 11-year-old Jason, our first-person narrator.
His shoddy, bust-ravaged hometown is "slap-bang in the middle of the country, miles from anywhere, and built inside a hole made out of bog, weeds, mulch, and the soggiest soil you might ever see". He and young mother Jacinta live in the rough end of town. She is boozy, bawdy and dissolute, and comes to represent an almost Oedipal echo of Penelope. Her version of escapism involves entertaining male callers at the home and having little regard for how much cavorting and carousing her son witnesses.
With an internal monologue that crackles with muzzy-headed electricity and sheer spirit, Jason is able to file past these traumas while poking much fun at them. His is bullied viciously by local thugs, yet still seems able to get in some insulting remarks at them before the beatings are administered. He finds strange sanctuary in the Swamp, a fetid margin where winos lay about the place and council workers try to contain mysteriously rising water levels. There, on a rock by stagnant water, he meets a girl who becomes a fleeting partner-in-crime. This is Jason's Medea, a sorceress of sorts who is able to pull his mind away to far-flung places like lost jungle cities, the pyramids, and, naturally, Ancient Greece. She introduces the concept of Ithaca to him, and how a sailor "belongs to no one. Not even to themselves".
For a boy constantly scanning about his world for signs of his absent father, a man he will never know, these ideas become co-ordinates. And like Medea, the girl's help is on the condition that he take her as a partner, something he is not entirely willing to do in a series of humorous exchanges.
In both characters, however, abuse and self-harm reflect back at one another. Jason's happy-go-lucky accounts about cutting himself are crushing, as are his taking of prescription pills while he spirals about without any guidance. It reins in Ithaca's giddy superstructure. One cannot help but think about Pat McCabe's The Butcher Boy and the manner in which it mined the grotesque and distorted out of frolicking abandon. But Jason is no butcher. He has much to feel aggrieved about but the violence he performs on himself is a purge, a way to make himself feel "happy-dizzy" by letting the pain flow out on a stream of "useless blood".
There is a gyroscopic sensation throughout Ithaca that can make it sometimes feel like not a huge amount is actually happening over all. As the pace of the short chapters quickens towards a galloping climax, Jason's implosion accelerates but like Odysseus himself, he takes a scenic route toward that end. This would be tedious were it not for the primary-coloured, spinning-top mania of McMonagle's voicing as well as his supporting cast of drunkards, sleazebags, poor-unfortunates and lunatics. These get ascribed names such as Flukey, Slug and Puck, while McMonagle has further fun with horses on a betting slip dubbed things like 'The Wife Doesn't Know' and 'A Donkey Called Dude'.
McMonagle's deal with Picador - reported to be to the tune of £50,000 - was signed on the back of Jason's unique tones. It will be intriguing to see who will next materialise from his imagination.