Halfway through Going Back, I was enjoying the book but, if not quite hating the main character, definitely finding him boorish and tiresome to the point of dislike. By the end, things were better between us; Scobie Donoghue and I had reached some kind of accommodation.
I’m still not sure I’d want to be stuck in a snowed-in hotel with him for four days; but having gained some understanding of the man, his past and his behaviour, it almost felt as if we had — brace yourself for a hideous cliché of modern life and culture — gone on a journey together.
Indeed, Going Back is a story about journeys, in some ways. (The cover tagline even reads “Scobie Donoghue has run out of road…” There’s his journey home to Ireland, from Australia, where he had lived for a decade, which opens our tale in late 2019. There was a journey into the Australian bush, one poisonous night, months before but recounted in full towards the end of the book, which had a profound impact on Scobie’s mental state.
There’s the rushed journey to a hospital, a mercy mission for an old sweetheart, which proves a pivotal moment in the narrative and provides him, perhaps for the first time, with the possibility of redemption. There are more than a few altered-state journeys along the way, under the influence of various narcotics.
Most centrally, there’s the main man’s journey through life: from cheeky pup through wild youth to the terminal station, the place he now finds himself, his childhood bedroom in an unnamed Offaly town — alone, heartbroken, popping pills to keep depression at bay.
Going Back is one of those rare things in art, a literary sequel to a TV programme. It takes up the story of Pure Mule, a defining piece of telly from mid-Noughties Ireland.
This was the Celtic Tiger in full flower, the bouquet rotting even as it bloomed: a raucous, bittersweet, very well-done drama about lives and desires and disappointments in a fictional provincial town. (Garrett Lombard brought Scobie to life so vividly in the show that I couldn’t help picturing his face while reading this, but no matter.)
O’Brien was writer and creator of Pure Mule, partly inspired by his own award-winning turn-of-the-millennium play Eden. Now he resurrects the story, setting, Scobie and all the rest, to ask one of those irresistible questions for fans: what happened next?
Things haven’t turned out too well for Scobie. He spent 10 years working on the building sites Down Under, fell in love with Aussie girl Ella, screwed it all up and crawled home, tail between his legs.
When we meet him, he’s a faintly pathetic character: whipped by the vicissitudes of life — much of it self-inflicted — but still, risibly, clinging to the image he had of himself as a younger man. The self-styled Scobie-Wan Kenobi: ladies’ man, gas man, man’s man, alpha man. The kind of lairy, beery, swaggering tool who loves himself, is indulged by his nearest and dearest, suffered under duress by almost everyone else, and loathed by the rest. Not the worst person in the world, not a reincarnation of Hitler or anything, but, my God, absolutely exhausting to be around for more than 10 minutes. (Now you understand why it wasn’t love at first sight for your humble correspondent and good old Scobie; not my kind of fella, at all.)
He meets old flames and old pals, feels awkward around his mother and stepdad in their home, realises he’s getting too old to be hitting on young ones in the pub and goes to the doctor about a vague panic lurking at the edges of consciousness.
Then Covid happens, and Scobie is stuck at home. Unsurprisingly, things aren’t going to get better any time soon.
Scobie’s at the heart of Going Back, but one thing I really liked about the novel is O’Brien’s generosity towards other characters. He gives them time, attention and personality, be it sweet-natured Angela and decent Cliff (mother and beau), former fling Deirdre and her troubled daughter Keelan, drug-addled local youngster Robbie, Guard Delaney — the kind of guy, as the man says, who’s so smooth, his roll-on deodorant rolls off — or Scobie’s muckers and workmates: motormouth Bob, laconic Niallers.
This all fleshes out our fictional town, embedding Scobie’s story in a world that’s recognisable to us. The people here are warm, stupid, funny, craven, reckless, smart, courageous, often ridiculous, sometimes one or more at the same time. You know, just like they are everywhere else.
The blurb mentions that dreaded word, “issues” — kiss of death for art, in my humble opinion — but ignore this. Going Back isn’t some dreary sociopolitical polemic masquerading as fiction. Rather, it’s a story about a life, a unique individual and, yes, a journey: authentic, affectionate, clear-eyed and engaging.
Fiction: Going Back by Eugene O’Brien
Gill Books, 320 pages, hardcover €18.99; e-book £13.99
Darragh McManus’ books include ‘The Driving Force’ and ‘Pretend We’re Dead’