Ronan Ryan's debut is as much a family saga as it is the story of poor Jimmy Dice. And Jimmy isn't the only member of the Dice family from Tipperary who suffers misfortune. They're a tragic bunch.
Jimmy was born a twin, although his twin sister didn't survive. His cord strangled her at birth. Her spirit is still knocking around, though, and Ryan exploits her character quite successfully, sometimes as narrator, sometimes as a kind of oracle, though for much of the novel Jimmy is unaware that she ever existed.
But then Jimmy is unaware of a lot of things, like for instance what happens if you climb into a cage of mad, starving dogs (he loses his leg) or what happens if you drunkenly slag off a Dublin drugs baron (he loses three fingers). Jimmy lives most of his life, in fact, as an accident adrift, waiting to happen.
The Dice family is considered exotic in their fictional hometown of Rathbaile. Jimmy's Argentinian grandfather fought in the Spanish Civil War.
His maternal grandmother, once the belle of the local hunt balls, spent her latter years in a home for the bewildered.
His mother Grace dies in that same home, utterly destroyed by her family's misfortunes, while his father Eamon plods on aimlessly, broken with loss.
Jimmy is more than a tad aimless himself, and this is where I had trouble with the book. A reader must have somebody to root for, warts included, or even someone to hate, but this reader wasn't moved by anyone in particular.
While the plot is clever and imaginative, the story is populated by so many cardboard cut-out characters, with whole swathes of dialogue that is so banal and so cliche-infested…well, they didn't help. Ryan cites John Irving as one of his influences, and it's obvious.
But Irving's protagonists are strong, crazy people who suffer horrendous calamities. And yet their stories are very, very funny.
Anyone who has read Garp or Owen Meany would have trouble forgetting them. I'm not sure, though, that the unfortunate Jimmy Dice will live in my memory with the same clarity and sparkle as the unfortunate Homer Wells.
That said, I found the plot intriguing, and this is the novel's real strength.
Right up to the last page, the last sentence, it's not possible to predict what will ultimately happen to Jimmy.
In some respects it's similar to Paul Murray's wonderful Skippy Dies.
Both novels are distinctly Irish without being Paddy-whacking Oirish.
Both books have emerged in our post-boom fug of hopelessness and both are strewn with heartbreak. But Paul Murray, like Irving, is uproariously funny. And, like Irving, his characters' colours embed themselves in the memory (Mario and Ruprecht immediately spring to mind). Jimmy's supporting cast, on the other hand, is a bit lacklustre and largely devoid of humour. They all drink too much and talk too much tripe in the bar, and while that may be the stuff of real life, it's hardly the stuff of great fiction.
Sunday Indo Living