Sunday 26 May 2019

A leap of the heart and a headbanger villain

John S Doyle finds a new work of Irish fiction packed with humorous situations

Ronan O'Brien

Confessions of a Fallen Angel

Ronan O'Brien

Hodder Headline Ireland, €16.99

The heart leaps up a little when one hears of a new Irish fiction writer whose first book is described by his publisher as "characterised by that unique brand of Dublin humour".

The heart sinks a little when one starts the book and embarks on another tale of Dublin working-class youth, in the fictional northside suburb of Rathgorman. (That is not an anti-Dublin-working-class bias, by the way; it's just that the under-10s are not really as interesting as adults are, except to their parents.)

Happily, it is worth persevering. Ronan O'Brien's nameless first-person narrator dies, in fact, on the day after his 10th birthday. But he comes back to life, and most of the book is taken up with his life after death (there are many deaths), when things started to go wrong.

The narrator's temporary death, from an asthma attack during a game of football, is convincingly described -- "oxygen was all around me but I couldn't take a breath". Dead, he experiences a deep sense of being all-knowing, but after his return to life that knowledge seems to vanish. A couple of years later, however, he has a dream that his best friend Owen has drowned. The dream recurs, becomes more frequent and more intense, and eventually what he has dreamt becomes a reality. The death unfolds like a Greek tragedy: there is nothing the chap can do to stop it, and in fact he has helped to cause it. Another two years and his mother dies, and the chap's life starts to crumble. He acquires a new stepmother with "a tongue sharper than a truckload of razorblades" and a son of her own, "a stepbrother from the planet Arsehole". The chap takes to spending his time in the local library instead of at school, and befriends the librarian, old Mrs Horricks.

If this were a Patrick McCabe novel (The Butcher Boy gets a mention from our narrator, as does The Catcher in the Rye, though the present book suffers in the comparison), he would take an axe to Mrs H; instead he dreams her death, and, thanks indirectly to the wicked stepbrother, it duly and inevitably happens. Not very ably represented by his barrister, the chap gets sent to St Pat's for his part in an incident at the library. When he gets out, he is 19, his father dies and he takes to the sup, eventually taking a job as a barman in Happy's, the local pub.

It is in Happy's that he meets the love of his life (a Rathgorman girl who was sent to a posh school in town) and encounters his nemesis (another local, a psychotic who he met in prison). Neither the narrator nor the reader can see what she sees in him, but there you are. The chap's unwanted gift comes into play on both counts, with catastrophic results.

It's a clever plot. The story holds together well as a narrative, hurtling towards its end as classical tragedy, and the main character is engaging in how he deals with adversity. The writer has created a world. The book is more successful the closer it stays to the dreadful characters who hang around Happy's pub, and the further it gets from the lovely Ashling. Happiness and goodness are harder to write than villainy and terror. Ronan O'Brien has a great villain in the headbanger (literally) Norman Valentine, and the reader is kept in suspense till his end. The goodness and beauty of our friend's wife are harder to appreciate; we are mostly told about it rather than shown it.

As for the promised unique brand of Dublin humour, there is some, but more in the situations than in the talk. It is the kind of book that calls for fresh writing, an original turn of phrase, and there is some of that, too. After an ear-biting incident, the missing part is produced. "It didn't look much like an earlobe anymore. It looked more like a ketchup-covered chip that someone had stood on." A fellow in A&E at the Mater "looked as if birds had been pecking at his face". Elsewhere there is a man "...who appears to be in constant danger of being swallowed by his trousers". But often the writer settles for the well-worn phrase, which an editor should have removed ("a dead man walking" precedes the previous quotation). And often a striving for originality or humour falls tastelessly flat: someone is described as being "so full of shit that it was coming out of his ears"; another is "so uptight that you couldn't pull a needle out of her arse with a tractor".

On balance, the heart leaps up at this new Irish novel. Similarly, with our friend, the narrator. Having spent his life hovering between life and death, between dreams and reality, he finally finds redemption: "There is a goodness inside all of us, even Norman, and that is what prevails when everything else has turned to dust."

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