Sunday 17 December 2017

Racial strife, music and frustrated dreams drive this energetic school drama

Rob Lynch is heading fast for 30 and stuck in a giant-sized rut. Once he had dreams of pop stardom as keyboard player with The Terrors; now he works teaching, a job he hates in Balbriggan, Co Dublin, feels trapped by his decade-long relationship with Jen, and sees that dream of musical success slipping away.

It could almost be a lyric from one of The Terrors' songs. Instead it's the plotline of Beatsploitation, the debut novel from young writer (and teacher) Kevin Curran. The plot thickens when Rob discovers that African student Kembo, known as John, has an amazing talent for making beats. With the band running to a standstill – a big record deal seems further than ever – Rob steals one of Kembo's tracks, passing it off as his own.

A London bigwig is finally interested in the band, but is Rob prepared to sell his soul to achieve that lifelong ambition? Add in racial strife, juvenile delinquency, recession, professional and personal disaffection, sexual temptation and you have the ingredients for a simmering dramatic stew, leading up to a shocking tragedy that we won't spoil here.

There are some things to like about Beatsploitation: the novel is energetic, truthful and sincere, telling a good story while also engaging with broader themes of societal breakdown and personal angst. The prose is pretty functional but that's okay – not everything has to be 'high art'.

John and Jen are very likeable characters. And the book brilliantly encapsulates the frustration felt by anyone who dreams of making art their livelihood, but finds that talent, timing or luck aren't on their side. On the downside, I found it very hard to relate to Rob. He's unhappy with his life, I get that. But he's whining, surly, sometimes abrasive. He seems to do little except moan to others and himself, string along his girlfriend and get involved in altercations.

A book's main character doesn't have to be admirable, but if not, he must be compelling. Rob is no Raskolnikov or Heathcliff; he's basically a selfish, delusional clown, leaving a vacuum of sorts at the novel's heart. Curran also has an annoying stylistic tic of not using apostrophes when required – for example, runnin instead of runnin'. At times he dispenses with commas. I guess it's meant to create an informal, conversational tone – but it's still annoying.

On the whole, Beatsploitation is a decent novel, though not a great one. It aims high, it has ambition, but doesn't quite get there – a little like the ill-fated Terrors.

Darragh McManus

Irish Independent

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