Thursday 12 December 2019

Books: Joseph O'Connor's love letter to rock and roll

The Thrill Of It All, Joseph O'Connor, Harvill Secker, €12.99

Joseph O'Connor
Joseph O'Connor
The Thrill of it All

Declan Hughes

ONE of the most important jobs of the novelist is to say, "It's not like that, it's like this." When Joseph O'Connor announced himself to the reading public in 1991 with Cowboys and Indians, he wasn't just publishing a superb first novel about the hapless Eddie Virago and his rock and roll dreams, he was writing about a constituency – the culturally deracinated suburban middle-class – which had been hitherto underrepresented in Irish fiction to the point of invisibility.

The Way We Live Now was not considered a fit subject for the Irish writer, who seemed happier thumbing through fading photographs in the family album than he did looking out of the window. O'Connor's early work played a significant role in helping to change that.

Subsequently, his novels have exhibited a diversity of theme, subject matter and genre worthy of his literary hero, Brian Moore. His most recent work has been set in the past; The Thrill of it All, his intoxicating new novel, which chronicles the fortunes of a Luton-Irish rock band called The Ships in the Night, reaches dry land in 2012, but the voyage begins in 1981, which in Irish literary terms, and for those of us who are roughly of an age with the author, qualifies as pretty much the present day.

The Thrill of it All (the title is taken from the Roxy Music classic) is cast in the form of a memoir, narrated by the band's guitarist, Robbie Goulding. Diffident, stubborn, puritanical, yet in utter thrall to the beauty and romance of popular song, Goulding is Charles Ryder to the impossibly exotic, Vietnamese-born, Yorkshire-bred Fran Mulvey's Sebastian Flyte, the Ships' lead singer. Together with Oxfam Fatale Trez Sherlock on cello, violin and bass and her diamond geezer twin brother, Sean, on drums, the Ships find their dry dock safe from the big city's glare at Luton Polytechnic. Here, they make their preparations, falling in to collaborate on their early songs, falling out when egos flare and self-doubt threatens to scupper the entire enterprise. From first rehearsal to first gig, from the grotty tour of colleges and pubs in a '71 Hillman Hunter with horsebox attached to the cassette no radio station will play, the band progresses through one botched opportunity after another: the inadequate demo for John Peel (he doesn't play it); the appearance on Top of the Pops (Trez doesn't show, and they're unceremoniously dumped).

The Ships decamp to New York, and are taken under the wing of an independent record company boss named Eric Wallace, who bankrolls them to tour and record an album. Once they endure the disaster of a particularly harsh winter in a Lower East Side squat of unusual squalor, that other imposter, triumph, finally arrives in the form of a five- star New York Times review and a Billboard Number 2 hit single. Soon, the lingering enmity between extravagantly talented Fran (think Ziggy-era Bowie, only wilder) and self-loathing, alcoholic Robbie reaches a crescendo and the band runs aground.

You don't have to be an ageing rock snob to find The Thrill of it All almost addictively entertaining, although it probably helps. Robbie's narrative is laced with plangent observations and beguiling insights into the music of the eighties, and the folk, blues and jazz from which it derives, and the passion and joy he exudes is palpably the author's own; the novel as a whole is like a love letter to rock and roll.

The music scene of the time, with its post-punk pieties and strict embargos on what was unacceptable listening, is expertly rendered (there's a note-perfect account of Billy Bragg preaching to the Trotskyite choir).

And I liked very much what might be termed the Irish Blood, English Heart thesis of the novel. As Fran puts it in his final interview: "A mate of mine used to joke, we ain't British or Irish, we're from Brireland. That's where millions of people live, quietly inter-marrying and ignoring all the bulls**t and getting on with the neighbours."

The book is extremely funny; there's an extended rant from Rob's father, Jimmy, at his drunken son that is a comic masterpiece. And Fran's neologisms are priceless; my favourite is "Panglo-Irish Literature," which I expect to see adopted as the industry standard. While not without edge, O'Connor's humour is essentially benign, with a backward glance toward Fielding and Kingsley Amis.

But 30 years in any life is an inevitable story of loss, and what makes this novel such a compulsive read is its extraordinary emotional intensity: from Fran's dark and damaged past, through Rob's envy, anger and self-thwarting, to the heartbreaking collapse of relationships, families and of course, the band itself, The Thrill of it All is an incredibly moving piece of work.

Somewhere, Eddie Virago is wiping a furtive tear from his middle-aged eye.

Declan Hughes

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