This boy's strife. . . underneath those dark suburban skies
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Roddy Doyle gave memorable voice to the inhabitants of Dublin's northside fringes, and now Kevin Maher's The Fields attempts the same for a suburb on the city's southside.
Indeed, Doyle's influence is clearly discernible in this debut novel, just as the shade of Joyce loomed over an earlier generation of Irish writers. However, the shadow that falls across the most successful pages of The Fields is less that of Doyle's raucously funny Barrytown trilogy than of the more intimate Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha.
Not that this tale of growing up in the environs of Goatstown and Dundrum in the early 1980s lacks raucous comedy as young narrator Jim Finnegan (now there's a Joycean name) tries to negotiate the pitfalls of family, friendship, sexual yearnings and predatory priests.
In fact, it's the vividly conveyed sense of Jim's exuberant openness to the promises of life that are among the book's real strengths, and for the first 110 pages of this 390-page novel the reader willingly accompanies him on his escapades and contentedly eavesdrops on the family's bickerings around the dinner table. These are scenes that glow with affection for a vanished boyhood when life seemed all gaiety and ease.
Then Jim gets violently raped by the local priest, to which the reader expects a reaction that's commensurate with this trauma, but instead the 14-year-old narrator pursues an unlikely sexual relationship with 17-year-old local beauty Saidhbh and treat's the priest's repeated assaults as a secondary, somewhat bothersome situation that has to be endured for as long as it lasts.
It's true, of course, that denial, along with shame and disgust, is a common response by victims of such vile acts, but though Jim does fume about this monster ("a horny priest with a hefty dose of rape on his mind"), it's in such a scornful and quasi-jokey fashion that it's hard for the reader to know quite how to react.
And the fact that Jim seems so psychologically untainted by the violation that it doesn't seem to affect anything else in his life (not least his sex romps with Saidhbh) puts a strain on the reader's belief in what's happening – a strain that isn't alleviated by the almost cartoonish way in which the priest finally gets his comeuppance in the London to which Jim has emigrated.
But by then the book has lost its bearings, as if the author didn't know what more there was to say about the characters he had created and so brought them instead to another locale, with new situations to be confronted and new challenges to be met, as if that might somehow do the trick.
All it does, however, is to make the book increasingly episodic and outlandish (Jim's involvement with a hippy-dippy healing cult being especially tiresome), while severely weakening the narrative's pulse.
The book ends back in the Dublin southside suburb where it began and where you wish it had stayed. Certainly, as a former resident of the area, I can testify to the vividness of the author's recall.
He himself moved as a young adult to London, where he has worked for 20 years as a journalist, though the finest parts of this wayward and overlong first novel suggest that he never really left home.