Thursday 14 December 2017

A northern 'Trainspotting' set before the peace deal

Fiction: Skintown, Ciarán McMenamin, Doubleday, tpbk, 277 pages, €14.99

Borderline: Ciarán McMenamin's first novel is a coming-of-age tale
Borderline: Ciarán McMenamin's first novel is a coming-of-age tale
Skintown by Ciarán McMenamin

Skintown, the debut novel from actor Ciarán McMenamin, is a coming-of-age story: Vincent Duffy, just turned 18, finds himself embroiled in a series of wild adventures. He comes out the other end, slightly older, wiser and bruised by it all - and slightly better equipped to take on the grown-up world.

It's also, I assume, partly autobiographical: the author grew up in Enniskillen (the titular Skintown), and would have been around Vinny's age in 1994, when this book is set. The star of David Copperfield and Primeval, McMenamin draws a vivid, compelling - and presumably accurate - portrait of a provincial town in a North that is on the cusp of the Peace Process.

Skintown might not quite have the brutal, big-city edge of Belfast, but it's still grim. Sectarianism is rife (Vinny's a lapsed Catholic, but once a Fenian, always a Fenian). Prospects are poor. The weather is bad, the pubs are rough, the whole place is depressing.

Vinny has quit school and now works, under the counter, for a Chinese restaurant. His mother nags him, his father's a bit of a waster. His only happiness is hanging out with friends, getting drunk, listening to music, lusting after girls - normal enough carry-on for a young eejit, then.

One night he has an altercation with a borderline-lunatic his age, McGullion. Soon after, Vinny ends up in a car with two Protestant thugs, Kyle and Grant, who he's sure are about to kick seven shades out of him - until their car crashes. Vinny, to his surprise, doesn't flee but helps them; an uneasy but genuine friendship is forged.

This leads to the two meat-heads offering Vinny and best pal Jonty the chance to make a thousand pounds between them, selling ecstasy tablets at a semi-legendary nightclub called Ned's in far-off Coleraine. And that, in turn, leads to Vinny having the night of his life: he takes E for the first time, meets the girl of his dreams, sells the drugs, attends an illegal rave and generally has a ball. Along the way, we encounter the 1994 IRA ceasefire, Orange marches and riots, and ritualistic car-burnings, while Vinny lays into McGullion with a lead pipe, and horrific tragedy occurs as the Continuity IRA announce their arrival with a hotel bombing.

It's zippy, even helter-skelter stuff - the blurb promises "a wild ride" and "a supercharged riot of a novel". I guess Skintown is aimed at the kind of reader who enjoyed, say, Trainspotting, although personally I found the book tiring after a while.

The story is alright, and McMenamin isn't a bad writer by any means; I think the main problem is these characters. For starters, they're all much the same type, or at most, two variations thereof: the mad bastard who's some bit likeable and has a few (only a few) redeeming qualities, and the mad bastard who isn't at all likeable and has no redeeming qualities.

Mostly young and mostly men, they mostly mess around, waste time, slag each other off, drink too much, take drugs, get into fights, whine and moan about every goddamn thing on the face of the planet, and treat women fairly shabbily.

They tend to have names like Bingo, Weasel, Virus, Long Jim, Psycho Smith. They swear all the time, in every sentence, like schoolboys trying to show how cool they (mistakenly think they) are.

In short, they're basically assholes. The cast of this otherwise pretty okay book is entirely populated by assholes.

In real life, you'd steer clear of any of these people; you certainly wouldn't spend time with a large collective of them. So, by definition, I found it hard going to endure nearly 300 pages of it. But that's just me.

I didn't like Trainspotting, either. You may well have loved it - and you may well love Skintown.

Darragh McManus's novels include Shiver the Whole Night Through and The Polka Dot Girl

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