Monday 18 December 2017

Books: Tale of Celtic Tiger sound and fury told by an idiot

HEARTBREAKING: Donal Ryan’s narrative is told from the perspective of village idiot, Johnsey Cunliffe, who is left to fend for himself when both his parnets die. Photo: David Conachy
HEARTBREAKING: Donal Ryan’s narrative is told from the perspective of village idiot, Johnsey Cunliffe, who is left to fend for himself when both his parnets die. Photo: David Conachy

Declan Hughes

The Thing About December by Donal Ryan (Doubleday Ireland/Lilliput Press €18.75)


The sow that ate the farrow is a recurrent motif in Irish literature, not least because it is a recurrent motif in Irish life, and it lies like a seething faultline beneath the narrative of Donal Ryan's brilliant second novel in the shape of the nation's elders, who, in a rapture of self-pity and self-regard, decided that they deserved to be rewarded for the service they had done the state by seeing the value of their houses rise to illusory levels. That the price for this illusion would have to be paid by their children and grandchildren seems never to have occurred to them.

Yes, this is Donal Ryan's Celtic Tiger novel, and aptly for that time of sound and fury, it is a tale told by an idiot. Johnsey Cunliffe is a fat auld gom who lives happily enough with Mother and Daddy on their farm. Mother has a hot dinner for him every day, and Daddy, a tough, widely feared man, is fond of him, although Johnsey knows it is the kind of fondness you'd have for an auld eejit of a crossbreed pup that should have been drowned at birth.

Johnsey has never really spoken to a girl. He has a dirty magazine that used to belong to Anthony Dwyer, who wasn't quite the gom Johnsey was, but who had the added hardship of being a meely-mawly with one leg shorter than the other. "And what if one of those who had passed away was watching him, and he inside in the jacks, interfering with himself? The dead are all around us, according to Father Cotter. They're having a right old laugh at me, so."

Now Daddy is three years dead, and Mother has lost her spark, and Packie Collins lets Johnsey work for him below in the co-op, but only out of respect for his father, because Johnsey is a liability. Eugene Penrose and his pals torment him daily, as they have since he was a child. Johnsey wonders what it would be like to lie down in the deep pool in the stream as you start towards the Shannon Callows, and stay down there and breathe water instead of air, or if the stout crossbeam in the slatted cattle house would take his weight, but imagine if he did it arseways and fell on his hole and broke his leg! The whole village would be wating for a turn to look at the fat eejit with his leg bursted and the rope still tight around his neck.

When Mother dies, Johnsey has no one to mind him only Daddy's kindly old friends, the Unthanks, who give him lunch every day in their bakery. Soon Johnsey ends up in hospital, the sight in his eyes beaten out of him by a townie pal of Eugene Penrose. Being blind isn't so bad when you know it won't be forever, especially when you're sharing a hospital room with Mumbly Dave, who becomes your only friend, even if you don't find him as funny as he finds himself, and Nurse Siobhan of the Lovely Voice, who it turns out has a lovely hand as well, and things get out of hand in her hand as Johnsey keeps his eyes fixed on her black bra strap and oh stars above oh mother of all that's holy oh oh oh.

Then the Unthanks arrive, excited as wasps around an open bottle of Fanta, with big news: a load of the land to the west of the village has been rezoned, including all of Daddy's farm. The old people have formed a consortium and they need Johnsey to join. But Daddy would have wanted the farm to be kept the way he had made it. How can Johnsey explain that the land is not his to sell or allow people to build things upon?

Johnsey the Gom, the small- town Candide, the holy fool, has made the fatal mistake of taking literally the national myths the old people merely paid lip-service to, of tradition and kindness and self-sacrifice. But these values are as hollow as the Christianity they profess. Now he confronts them in their hour of savage greed, and tragedy ensues. There are echoes here of The Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe, and of Tom Murphy's early work, in particular A Crucial Week in the Life of a Grocer's Assistant. Ryan has a wonderful comic sense of the pieties and absurdities of small town Irish life and an acute ear for the sprung rhythms of a voice in full song. But this heartbreaking novel has more than social critique on its mind: it is a profound and devastating interrogation of the soul-sickness, the spiritual nihilism of a nation with an apparent death wish. It is a magnificent achievement.


Irish Independent

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