Saturday 19 August 2017

A naive fool reveals the real world in Collins' magnificent literary debut

JP O'Malley

The Gamal

Ciaran Collins

Bloomsbury, €18.75

For those readers with a penchant for the bourgeois literary novel, Charlie McCarthy has a message for you: "Don't be expecting any big flowery longwinded picturesque horsesh*t passages in this book explaining the look of something. If I have to go into that much detail I'll take a photograph or draw a picture. This is for people like myself who hate reading."

Charlie is 25 years old, and from a small village in West Cork called Ballyronan. The only reason he bothers to write anything down is because Mr Quinn – his psychiatrist – tells him to. A thousand words a day is good for progress, he says.

In his childhood, Charlie suffered from oppositional defiant disorder: a behaviour that defies figures of authority. In the years since, he has been on and off medication to keep him mentally stable.

His father once told Charlie the reason he has never been liked is because part of his brain is "f**ked".

When Charlie thinks back to happier times in his life, he remembers his two best friends, Sinead and James.

The young couple were the only two people in the world who truly understood him. But it's been five years since he has seen either of them. Presently he suffers from post traumatic stress disorder, spending his days trying to figure out how a world that once made perfect sense became so mixed up.

As a youngster Charlie earned the nickname of 'The Gamal': it comes from the Irish word 'gamalog', which means simpleton. Or as they say in Ballyronan, "He's a bit of a God help us".

Although having the outward appearance of a naive fool to many, Charlie actually has far more wisdom than any of the so-called 'normal' people he interacts with on a daily basis.

He also has a wicked sense of humour. He describes the local police officer, Detective Crowley, as a "thick-looking f**ker if you ever seen one [with a] big fat cabbage and bacon head up on him"; while Sinead's father is "the meanest alcoholic in Europe"; and Dr Quinn "is the same kind of stupid most people are".

The first half of the novel saunters along in this light-hearted/happy-go-lucky spirit.

Charlie, Sinead and James become inseparable; they attend Irish college together; take a memorable boat trip; go to pubs, and play music regularly.

But as the narrative progresses, the business of growing up; forming identities; making one's way in the world; and the activities of a malevolent outside group, become instrumental in destroying the relationship this close-knit group of friends share.

Many of the secondary characters, who, up until this point, play a very minor role, suddenly become central to the plot: which takes a nasty twist, exposing the sinister side to this small rural community.

As this tragedy unfolds, Collins widens the scope of his narrative.

We read evidence through the details of a court case, which Charlie recalls with scrupulous detail.

And a number of other voices are woven into the story also.

But running parallel to this legal and criminal jargon– which dominates the latter half of the book – is the poignant and tender voice of Collins' central protagonist, who acts as the novel's moral compass: documenting a world that gradually descends into chaos.

On a night when Charlie confesses that he knows for sure there is evil in the world, he looks into the mirror and asks: "Is there a time when you have to look at yourself and decide what kind of man you are? Or what kind of a man you're not?"

This debut novel is a remarkable achievement by a writer of extraordinary talent.

Ciaran Collins is a name we will no doubt be seeing on the lists for literary prizes in the coming months and years ahead.

Irish Independent

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