Wednesday 21 February 2018

Gleeson cuts teeth with tale of youthful arrogance

Fiction: Rockadoon Shore, Rory Gleeson, John Murray, hdbk, 296 pages, €23.79

Feeling the buzz: Rory Gleeson. Photo: Mark Condren
Feeling the buzz: Rory Gleeson. Photo: Mark Condren
Rockadoon Shore by Rory Gleeson

Ruth Gilligan

By the end of what was supposed to be a country retreat with friends, Cath and Steph, two of the 'friends' in question, exchange the following:

-Fucking hell.

-The weekend.


-I wouldn't say disaster now, Cath, but eventful.

-Ha. One way of putting it.

This 'eventful' trip forms the basis of Rory Gleeson's boisterous and energetic debut novel, Rockadoon Shore. The jaunt is organised by Cath in the hope of recreating the fun-filled vibes of the university surf-club tour where she first met Steph and the rest of the gang.

To help things along, JJ has brought enough pills and Red Bull to feed (and speed) an army. Lucy, meanwhile, sees the trip as an opportunity to seek out other pleasures: "She was going to have her Jennifer Grey moment in this house." Perhaps the lucky man will be JJ, or "tall, sleek, GAA legend Merc". Or perhaps it will be DanDan, though he still seems far too preoccupied with the recent death of his ex-girlfriend (as well as the fact that she dared to dump him in the middle of an arcade).

The novel alternates between these six, variously troubled, points of view in a series of short (and sometimes overlapping) chapters. However, despite their best (or worst) intentions, the weekend gets off to a rather tame start. At first they play charades and do party pieces, finding themselves surprisingly awkward in one another's company. "It'd never been like this before. Everyone spoke too loudly, too clearly; their movements were exaggerated, their exclamations too stagey. It was like there was a camera on them or something, like someone was recording them."

Cath's hunch here is right, for there is indeed someone watching them -Malachy, the elderly neighbour - who provides a seventh perspective on the whole affair. He spots the group from the moment they arrive. "They had that look about them," he declares, "that self-important snarl of youth that said, 'We're going to give you no peace, and you'd better get used to it.'"

Sure enough, over the next three days, Malachy gets no peace, and not just because he takes it upon himself to stay up through the night spying on the house, armed with nothing but a shotgun and a bottle of Jameson. But the group's presence also causes memories of Malachy's own youth to surface - traces of a past he has tried desperately to keep buried deep. So his own torments and regrets, his missed chances and sordid secrets, weave in with the increasingly sordid scene below.

For, despite the slow start, soon the booze and the drugs kick in, and the hormones and tensions begin to mount. Each one becomes ferociously concerned with who fancies whom; who is the most wasted; how awesome or how awful they feel at any given moment. Through a series of bad jokes, innuendos, exclamation marks and capital letters, we learn that the buzz they were seeking has finally arrived. 'HEE HAW. HEEE HAW. HEE HEE HEE HEE! HEEEEEE HAAAWWW.'

Inevitably, by the second night, this buzz starts to turn rather sour, each member of the group morphing into a more grotesque version of themselves. It is Cath who eventually has to ask, "Why am I friends with these people?" and who observes, "The more time we spend together, the more bad things happen."

Gleeson is not the only young Irish writer in recent years to have cut his teeth by conjuring such a raucous, randy, substance-riddled posse. Reading Rockadoon Shore, readers might call to mind Rob Doyle's Here Are the Young Men or Colin Barrett's exceptional collection Young Skins. In each case, the attempt to conjure such an intense, narcissistic world must tread the fine line between capturing the pure arrogance of youth and retaining at least some of the ­reader's sympathies or emotional investment.

What is guaranteed is that the visceral energy eventually turns into a rising sense of dread. We know that stories like this do not end well (again, readers might call to mind works like Kevin Power's Bad Day in Blackrock). People get messy; tempers flare; violence is suddenly close to the surface. Especially with Malachy's beady eye and loaded gun lurking in the background, our nerves cannot sit still.

Gleeson's glowing CV (Trinity, Oxford, UEA) and genetics (the father, the brothers) have been well documented in recent interviews. As have the themes with which he seems most concerned - the reality of 'New Ireland'; inter- generational tensions; the difficulty (regardless of age or circumstance) of facing up to uncomfortable truths. No doubt we will hear a lot more from him on these matters in years to come. You never know - maybe the gang will arrange another 'eventful' trip…

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