Sunday 18 March 2018

State-of-the-nation rant proves a tad too clever and overcooked


Grattan and Me

Tom O'Neill

Dalkey Archive Press £14.50

Hilary A White

It is only relatively recently that we Irish decided that expertise and professionalism were the way to go in any endeavour in life, from heading an organisation (private, at least) to playing for the national rugby team. It was not always the case. There was once a disregard for the claims of talent, that brought with it a culture of begrudgery that we are only now showing signs of shaking off, as our best and brightest get nominated for Oscars and sell tech start-ups for zillions.

Grattan Fletcher, half of Tom O'Neill's central double act in this ambitious, overcooked novel, is a civil servant who fancies himself as good a candidate as any to rise to the highest rung of citizenship and occupy Aras an Uachtarain. He's fairly erudite and well-read (if hapless) and feels he is sensitive to the important issues affecting the more afflicted sectors of Irish society. He sets off in an Office of Public Works van with his lippy, irreverent sidekick Suck Ryle, who is just about humouring his overseer on the off chance he actually makes it into the Presidency. There could, after all, be a cushy job awaiting him if things go right.

The only problem is that many of these issues have been evaluated through the thin centralised prism of the capital, without on-the-ground, flesh-pressing perspectives of the reality of the situation. For this reason, the duo run into all kinds of scrapes as they engage with anti-fracking campaigners, ethnic minorities, the clergy and various other sectors on their virtue-signalling odyssey. It is a great way for everyone in this muddled island to get both barrels, and the dichotomy of Grattan and Ryle allows for a joshing exchange on most matters. While Grattan booms from his soapbox with all the pretty literary soundbites and sloganeering customary of the campaign trail, Ryle spits, sighs and rolls his eyes over a litany of dismissals and expletives.

Carlow-born O'Neill is a polymath who has succeeded at a number of things, among them teaching, IT, farming, building restoration and writing children's books. This first novel proper is broad of horizon and densely packed with ideas and themes as he reformats a state-of-the-nation rant into something nebulous, slippery and playful.

However, it doesn't take too long for the feeling that O'Neill is perhaps too clever for his own good. We get a foreword and a preface to establish the idea that the story itself - as narrated by one "Tommy Nail" - is being told within frames (that of a "compiler" and an editor). These are supposedly to add layers of commentary. When the thing does eventually kick off, this very long novel is continually interrupted by elaborate, page-long footnotes and appendices in these extra two voices, each adding their two cents to the document, the characters or whatever stage of the tour they are on. It's a shame because O'Neill clearly demonstrates that he has the athleticism of both language and intellect to get thematic cogs turning. It's just that there are too many of them doing so at once and in different gears.

Grattan and Me thus becomes a workout when you know that an enjoyable, witty satire, a halfway house between John Kennedy Toole and Cervantes, could have been the result had O'Neill indulged himself just a little less.

Sunday Independent

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