Saturday 23 November 2019

Review: Fiction: Ross O’Carroll Kelly: The Shelbourne Ultimatum by Paul Howard

Penguin Ireland, €15.99, pbk
Available with free P&P on or by calling 091 709350

Over the course of 12 novels and innumerable newspaper columns, journalist and author Paul Howard has brilliantly, seemingly effortlessly, catalogued the rise and fall of the Celtic Tiger.

Indeed, the total economic collapse of this country has afforded the previously ailing character with a new sense of purpose.

When historians look back on the good times, they need to look no further than those early books -- satire that was so close to the reality of a strata of society, so rich and privileged, that it felt like a documentary.

But as time wore on, the joke began to wear thin and when people began to get an inkling of the disaster that was rapidly approaching us, it just didn't seem funny any more.

Now, in his latest effort, The Shelbourne Ultimatum, we see a country that looks like Albania when compared with the Ireland of his early novels.

All the once popular posh shops in places such as the Powerscourt Townhouse Centre and Grafton Street are long gone -- replaced with a succession of discount phone shops and shops buying gold, while in a move that will give some people an amount of grim pleasure, Shrewsbury Road is now a ghost estate.

And Ross has been shot.

We first see him emerge from a coma after he was gunned down -- but shot by whom? After all, the list of people who would like to see him dead is a long one and, with no recollection of being targetted in the house of the woman he was sleeping with (while also sleeping with the girl's mother -- hey, he is Ross after all) -- he can't help the Gardai.

Indeed, his amnesia seems almost . . . convenient and the detectives on the case become increasingly suspicious of the man who still lives off the back of one good season at SCT level.

On the domestic front, things are as chaotic as ever. His delinquent son Ronan is growing up, and despite an unusually precocious career in Dublin's gangland scene he is also a gifted genius who is smarter than everyone.

Meanwhile, his daughter, Honor, has become even more hideously obnoxious and spoiled than she was previously.

As usual, his ex-wife Sorcha is struggling to come to terms with the new realities of life in Ireland, with her shop gone and her home under threat.

During his recovery, he is struck by just how hideously, drastically wrong things have gone in Ireland. Marks and Spencer are now selling microwavable coddle. And he was only in a coma for 10 days!

As usual, his long suffering father is oblivious to everything but buys his son's affection -- not something that comes cheaply.

Indeed, in one passage that perfectly illustrates pere O'Carroll Kelly's ignorance of the situation, he buys his son a red Lamborghini and is nonplussed as to why people would throw eggs and paint at it.

The writing is, as you would expect from someone as deft as Howard, typically good, there are plenty of good gags and we are offered some interesting questions -- will Sorcha take him back and, crucially, who really shot him?

But, to be perfectly frank, I'm not sure how ready people are to laugh at what we're going through at the moment. I know we all have a touch of gallows humour going on, but to this reader it all just seemed a little too raw. As the old joke goes -- too soon?

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