Friday 19 July 2019

For the Good Times: Stylistically unconventional and searingly modernist Troubles novel

Fiction: For the Good Times

David Keenan

Faber, trade paperback, 348 pages, €13.99

David Keenan: zinging humour and mayhem
David Keenan: zinging humour and mayhem
For The Good Times

Hilary A White

The North is the place to be in literary land, it appears, what with Booker winners, dark thrillers, punk memoirs and short fictions of the highest calibre all emanating out of that scarred cluster of counties in recent months.

The latest spattering of colourful energy to strike the province is that of David Keenan, the Scottish son of an Ulsterman who turned a few heads in 2017 with debut novel This is Memorial Device, a sort of mock-rock-bio about a fictional Scottish post-punk scene.

For the Good Times is certainly not unusual in setting itself in the Ardoyne during the thick of 1970s sectarian violence, but there is a savagery to its modernist carnival that sounds somewhat fresh, if at times a little too ebullient. Not here will you find the mural-saluting righteousness of "the cause", nor do we get some schlocky psychotic murder plotting that piggybacks on the broader toxicity of the Troubles.

In our het-up narrator Sammy McMahon, Keenan gives voice to the vicious teenage kicks that a certain type of young Republican soldier was looking to fill his nights with. There was lots to know if you were one of "the Boys" (Sammy's generic mafioso catch-all for the IRA, the Provos, Óglaigh na hÉireann, whatever you're having yourself), he relates from the Maze years later, particularly "how to make every day a comeuppance for every single historical slight your family has ever suffered". "It was good times, if you were on the right side, or at least one of them. But if you fell through the cracks, forget it."

Sammy and his brotherly cohorts Tommy and Barney walk with a dapper, Perry Como-soundtracked swagger. Their motivation? "Protection, resentment, ambition, revenge, honour, sex, money, style, class" and "a history of violence that ran through our veins and that was one of the only things holding the generations together".

History, politics and socialism are things they cannot spell, let alone graft on to their brutishness. Sammy kidnaps the wife of a comic store owner who owes the Ra money, and she unloads succinctly on him and his accomplices. Kathy tells them they are the Troubles, and asks if kidnap, torture and rape add up to the United Ireland future they idealise. They have no answer. There are just the "dominoes" of perpetual retribution that ripple along. Keenan is stylistically unconventional, searingly modernist and able to build scenes of sustained chaos and fury at a galloping pace. It makes for lacerating reading when he does so but the overriding taste is a desire to pare down the Troubles and any surrounding religious imperative ("…this terrible need to put suffering on a pedestal, this cult of pain, is holy,") into something absurdist, ramshackle and scattergun.

We see 'The Boys' take control of a comic store in order to bring in cash for the cause and end up being sucked into laughable nerdishness. Jokes are always aired, a clownish empowerment sought via patter and lame punchlines. The giddiness of Sammy's voice, liberally decorated with thick North Belfast colloquialisms, rams into scenarios of shocking brutality but also winds its way into interludes of exhalation and his own unique brand of warped reflection (a Stockholm syndrome tryst with Kathy that plays out in the infamously beset-upon Europa Hotel, tracts of sci-fi comic narrative dropped into the mix).

While it does strike notes of zinging humour and mayhem - the films of Ben Wheatley somehow spring to mind - it can occasionally be hard to find purchase in its circular motions and bloody hijinks.

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