Music journalism has been a useful nursery for writers who go on to plant roots in the literary world. It is an arena that encourages flourish, hyperbole and show-off somersaults, and therefore a place to get excess out of the system before learning the advantages of restraint and economy. Kevin Barry, Sinéad Gleeson and Ian Maleney are examples of noted figures in contemporary literature who spent journeyman days in the music press.
Kilkenny's Tim MacGabhann began his writing career there too while studying in Trinity, before relocating to Latin America in 2013 to correspond from that colourful region for various international news brands. Call Him Mine, the debut novel he released last year, was billed as a notably literary contribution to crime fiction (a curious proclamation from the publishing industry about a genre that has a rich tradition in exquisite language, from Raymond Chandler to Eoin McNamee). For some, however, it was jumped-up and excessive, the very traits that are the hallmarks of good rock scribes.
How to be Nowhere is its sequel, and picks up with Irish reporter and recovering addict Andrew, who is based in Mexico. He is dusting himself off after the events of the first book, in which his photojournalist lover Carlos died. Andrew crossed moral lines in that novel and has been called on again to do a gangland chore for which his only options are "silver or lead". It involves the disappearance of a corrupt official in Guatemala, and working with a lethal mercenary called Puccini who was responsible for Carlos's death.
This is "cartel noir", with a damaged anti-hero who seems to have no qualms about getting down and dirty with the most brutally medieval methods of the Latino gangs. As Andrew teams up with Puccini, he finds himself, variously, as getaway driver, hitman, spy and fortress cracker, able to think quickly on his toes in matters of high-speed chases and altercations with security workers.
You find yourself forgiving the absurdity of a recovering alcoholic Irish journo taking out the trash in cartel-ridden badlands. The reason for this is that, despite MacGabhann's literary manoeuvres, How to be Nowhere is a straight-up genre romp begging to be adapted into celluloid. So carefully metered is it with car chases, gruesome torture scenes (those with weak stomachs should decline), and first-person sensory fatigue that you wonder if this has been MacGabhann's intention all along. Descriptions of Puccini's brand of tough-guy flexing is straight out of the 80s action-hero handbook, and you come to enjoy them for that.
What works less well is when everything slows and Andrew is jogging memories or dealing with the stars in his vision. MacGabhann is prone to overusing certain motifs - characters are constantly pressing fingers or knuckles into eyelids in expressions of weariness, for example - and he can commit the odd clanger ("His face looked as sickly as a Caravaggio under the fly-killer lights").
Put simply, the book does its best work when it is galloping through assault rifle fire, slamming brakes and bandit-country darkness. The author's immersion in the real-life tragedy of Mexico's drug wars rings true.
As an Irishman who would have grown up with the dying embers of sectarian violence, MacGabhann delivers a quaking feeling of a part of the world that is becoming defined by the violence on its streets, its missing persons and blood-drenched headlines. "History's the story of people caring about shit that either doesn't matter or doesn't work," a jaundiced local soul offers at one point.