Friday 23 February 2018

Fear and loathing on journey of discovery

Hilary A White

Scriptwriter's debut novel could double as Ireland's High Fidelity, says Hilary A White

The Tenderloin

John Butler

Picador, €14.99

How times have changed. Once it was that the young Irishman travelled out of desperation, a decision not taken lightly either during the gloomtimes of 1981 or indeed 2011. But somewhere in between there existed a period when the same demographic headed off into what they felt was the great unknown (in fact, a well-trodden path) simply to kill a bit of time or let their hair down before returning to become net contributors.

Then for some, travel is all about an unspecific need to "find" oneself. The Tenderloin, the debut novel from award-winning Irish scriptwriter and sometimes-columnist John Butler, trades more on this idea that travel unlocks potential, but that it's not always for the better and it may not supply the answers you were banking on getting.

In the case of Evan, his wet-behind-the-ears protagonist, the independence and outlandish variety he finds in San Francisco during the mid-Nineties dotcom boom intensifies self-doubt. His suburban Dublin life was boring but safe. San Francisco, however, throws so much colour at him that he is occasionally dazzled by it.

Joining him on the journey to the West Coast of the US is partner-in-crime Milo, a troubled soul under the guise of a spontaneous and handsome cad who persistently curses the bad luck of which he is the sole architect. Evan is infatuated with Milo's sexual prowess and devil-may-care carry on -- for a while it's all Milo this, Milo that -- and when Milo's on-off girlfriend Roisin comes out, she adds a nebulous tonic to the mix.

Evan is crafted well by Butler; a drippy UCD graduate with zero practical or romantic life experience, Evan has his flash of quick-witted charm but often is hackneyed in his decision-making. "I was the kind of broke that could make you laugh and cry at the same time, yet though it was cheaper to do so, something prevented me from making my own breakfast." He's lazy from years of Irish-mammy smothering, and uses his lack of self-assurance to justify it. Often, he is happy to let someone else define things to him, and when in doubt, he consults a barstool.

When he happens upon the totemic Sam, the effortlessly charismatic "internet evangelist" and CEO of ForwardSlash, a rising web company, he is smitten with a pseudo-sexual "bromantic" fascination. Sam is cool, collected and without any of the post-Catholic baggage that the Irish are never quite free of. Penniless and devoid of employment prospects, Evan goes to work for ForwardSlash.

In a way, The Tenderloin isn't really about anything other than Evan and those who orbit him. The tale is dotted with anecdotes -- an awkward grapple with Roisin, a disastrous yachting trip with Sam, encounters with the sort of human variety only the US can serve up -- but it is the story inside Sam as he tries to make sense of himself that dominates. Butler's flow is that of the scriptwriter, able to turn kitchen-table chats into moments of paramount importance. Naturally, the dialogue and Evan's inner voice are crystal clear and often ingeniously smart. Butler excels at all this; chords are struck on every page with the reader, while his externalisation of the Irish male condition is spot on to the point that you start to think you are holding Ireland's answer to High Fidelity.

Of course Evan's acute observations of his surroundings and cultural context are a large part too. Ensconced in his new job at ForwardSlash as a sort of glorified handyman, he is a bystander to a revolution that had yet to turn fully but was already accelerating at a furious pace. Outside the office walls, Deadheads are weeping at the death of Jerry Garcia, OJ Simpson is on trial, and the Unabomber is causing more than just a stir. Something called Windows 95 is launched to massive overnight queues and Evan is offered "something called hummus" to eat. From the travel writer's point of view -- and you do wonder if Butler is an angsty and frustrated travel scribe -- this is fruitful territory and allows the author to indulge Evan's disorientation in vigorously humorous ways.

When things start to collapse for our hero, he unravels into himself spectacularly and at alarming speed, but Butler gives you the impression that this just has to be so if Evan is to blossom. If you were looking for one universal moral to this journal of fear and loathing, then it's that sound foundations are always best to build upon.

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