Books: O’Connor appeals to fans of early ’80s music
The Thrill Of It All: Joseph O'Connor Harvill Secker, tpbk, £17.95, 416 pages
Joseph O'Connor recalled recently that his childhood and teens were "a troubled time" with "fear in the house" caused by the troubled relationship of his parents and that "the happy days" of his youth all involved music – much of it heard on records or on the radio, but some of it amateurishly performed by himself, sister Sinead and their other two siblings.
Indeed, he remains so convinced that "music soothes, consoles, reveals our better angels and binds up the wounds" that he's now written a novel about the power it exercises in people's lives.
And while England, rather than Ireland, is where the book is largely located, he regards it as "a story from the core of my heart".
Certainly, it marks something of a departure for a novelist who first achieved international fame with the sweeping historical saga, Star of the Sea, and remained rooted in history with the 2010 Ghost Light, a strenuously literary and somewhat pallid imagining of the relationship between actress Molly Allgood and dramatist John Millington Synge.
There's nothing pallid about The Thrill of it All, a raucous tale in which Irish-born guitarist Robbie Goulding looks back on his teenage years in Luton during the early 1980s and relates how he met up with three others to form a band, The Ships in the Night, and make a bid for rock stardom – a goal that was ultimately achieved, though not without collateral cost.
You may immediately think of Roddy Doyle's The Commitments, though Jimmy Rabbitte and his raggle-taggle mates were never as geekishly obsessive about their music as Robbie is here. Indeed, he's so consumed by his musical loves and loathings, and so intent on telling you about them, that he makes the anal-retentive Rob in Nick Hornby's High Fidelity seem like a casual dilettante. This may cause a problem for readers who know next to nothing about the rock, pop, ska or reggae scene of the early '80s and who may well feel alienated by Robbie's incessant name-checking of, and opinions on, various bands of the era.
Indeed, it may well cause a problem for those who do know that music and who, unlike Robbie, think an awful lot of it was rubbish.
Robbie's fanzine enthusiasms, as it happens, extend beyond music, and so we get sentences that begin "David Mamet says..." or "Yeats says...". All in all, Robbie's an oddly bookish fellow to be pursuing sex, drugs and the meaning of tequila, and he relates his story in a literary language that wasn't learned while he was tuning his G string (Yes, I know that he'd been an arts student at the local polytech, but that doesn't really explain his rhetorical flourishes).
His enthusiasms extend to the people around him, too. Lead singer Fran, a Vietnamese orphan who'd been adopted by an Irish couple in Rotherham before recreating himself as Luton's answer to David Bowie, was "beautiful even before he'd grown into his beauty", while girl cellist Trez was "the most inspiritingly lovely human I had ever seen". Meanwhile, Robbie's brother, Shay, was "the sweetest and funniest man I've had the blessing to know".
At such moments, and there are many, you wish the author would observe the old adage about simply showing you the characters and not telling you what to feel about them, and when he does manage that kind of restraint the book is often exuberantly funny – as in an extended late-night tirade by Robbie's long-suffering father Jimmy, whose exasperated utterances about his useless son, conveyed in daft illogicalities, had me guffawing without coercion from either Robbie or his creator.
Trez is vividly realised, too, but Fran, whose eventual solo career turns him into a Bono-like global superstar, remains something of a cipher throughout, and a rather tiresome one, too, in his constant mood swings and frequent tantrum-throwing.
The Vietnamese back story he's been given also seems quite arbitrary, though it's obviously meant to have some telling psychological and emotional import.
Indeed, the whole novel seems to be straining for a resonance that its simple storyline (this happened and then that happened) never quite warrants.
You sense that it's perhaps meant as some kind of cautionary tale about the fragility of friendships and the perils of fame and excess, but really it's just a story about a band that came together and subsequently broke up.
The writing is occasionally casual to the point of laziness – regarding a brawl with some Kentucky rednecks, narrator Robbie says, "I needn't describe what ensued," before proceeding to do just that; while not a lot is gained by learning that "on a summer morning in Dublin the Liffey can seem pleasant," or that England in the 1980s was a "funny old time" under a prime minister who was "a union-crushing, self-avowed admirer of General Pinochet".
Still, the book mostly barrels along energetically, and if you're of an age to get all misty-eyed when the radio plays something by The Specials or The Clash or Patti Smith, you may find that the story Robbie has to tell is just what you've been waiting for, and that the music he raves about provides the perfect soundtrack to your memories.
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