Saturday 21 September 2019

Demented, dishevelled and deeply surreal - Blindboy Boatclub's book will shock and delight

Short story: The Gospel According to Blindboy, Blindboy Boatclub, Gill Books, hardback, 304 pages, €19.99

Twisted tales: Blindboy Boatclub's short stories are at times filthily funny. Photo: Mark Nixon
Twisted tales: Blindboy Boatclub's short stories are at times filthily funny. Photo: Mark Nixon
The Gospel According to Blindboy

Hilary A White

Blindboy Boatclub, one half of Limerick comedy duo the Rubberbandits, has now turned his attention to writing with a collection of short stories that will shock and delight.

Funny how things go around. In a piece  written in 2011 about Kevin Barry's debut novel, The City of Bohane, your reviewer cited the leering lilt of the Rubberbandits as one of the touchstones in the gnarled vernacular of Barry's dystopian dialogue.

Six years on, we arrive at the publishing debut by Blindboy Boatclub, a collection of 15 short stories that are so demented and dishevelled that you cannot help but think of some of Barry's more macabre offerings. (A Barry blurb gushes from the front cover of The Gospel According To… and one entry has even found its way into the latest edition of Winter Papers, the arts journal he curates with partner Olivia Smith). Perhaps it's a Limerick thing.

As one half of the Rubberbandits, Blindboy has evolved from being a gowl-eyed, plastic-nosed raconteur to being a staple of panel discussions whenever the disaffected youth of Ireland are concerned. Ending up as Late Late Show couch fodder was probably never part of the plan, but the conversation has definitely benefited from the angular logic he brings to serious issues.

The duo's arch subversions - razor-sharp social commentary beneath an anarchic veil of can-swilling and comedy electro - find a route into these mangled yarns, imbuing them with a rare tone that falls somewhere between John Healy's derelict horror in The Glass Arena and the absurdist savagery of Pat McCabe.

Over and over, we are plunged into passages of boiling, frenzied imagination as this thrilling new writer takes what is laid out in front of us in contemporary Ireland and reconstructs it. Try stifling a sinister laugh as De Valera and Collins mix cocktails before engaging in a spot of occult sexual ritualising in 'Arse Children'. It is filthy, hilarious, irreverent and feverishly provocative. Either it is a horrid, self-indulgent doodle or it is a scathing take-down of the fetishisation of these two sacred cows. Your heart tells you it is the latter.

In 'The Batter', the tone of ultra-dark farce as a vehicle for a sneaky rant is palpable as well. A card-carrying member of the hashtag generation escapes from a labyrinth of social-media offence and identity politics in a flurry of posh nosh and boutique festival headaches. Like any good Irishman, the character cartwheels towards a muddy bog in search of sodden salvation. As in every inch of Blindboy's voicing, the language is het-up and intense, as if committed to paper during a particularly hedonistic all-nighter.

Stories like 'Ríthe Chorcaí' and 'Draco' leave a similar sense of queasy arousal. The former is vicious stuff indeed as a cheery sociopath fantasises at a frantic tempo about flaying Rory Gallagher. While visceral and compelling, you do wonder, is the punchline worth the horror show?

The latter, meanwhile, is one of countless examples here that there is a fiercely learned intelligence at work beneath the surface that is as comfortable discussing Ancient Greek politics as it is the merits of "those big yokes they have up in Dublin that feel like biting into a condom full of dong".

That vein of surrealism runs deep throughout The Gospel According To…, sometimes in truly spectacular fashion. You'll struggle to find anything as hilariously bonkers as 'Ten-Foot Hen Bending' elsewhere in the written word this year. An unnervingly authentic diary of mental ill-health - an issue close to the writer's heart and one he regularly campaigns to support - mutates seamlessly into a wild romp about the protagonist and the actor Sam Neill upsetting Italian tourists at Bunratty Castle. You might feel a bit dirty for laughing at something so obviously grounded in dysfunction, but then hasn't that always been the raison d'être of the Rubberbandits since the get-go?

Things are even more muzzy-headed in the nicely titled 'Fatima Backflip'. Here, we are fed seven pages of thrillingly acrobatic chaos. Traces of reason and intellect go to battle with the giddy, cluttered, distractable delirium of the digital generation as a lost soul longs to get away from this wet, grey island. Free of paragraph returns or a discernible narrative structure, it should perhaps be avoided by those for whom literature is a tool to unwind and centre oneself. Everyone else might find themselves breaking out in a sweat.

It is a truly unique voice that can mine tenderness in narratives about statue-soiling pigeons or banshees seducing horny grandsons, but this is the world Blindboy has manufactured in a medium that suits him down to the ground. We should welcome him with open arms.

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