Book Review by Frank O’Shea
Alan McMonagle. ITHACA. Picador. 310 pp. €15
In any list of memorable opening sentences, Galway writer Alan McMonagle’s start to his first novel has to be up there with the best: ‘I am the cancer-ridden only son of a dangerous driver who has thoughts of turning herself into a man.’ Never mind that only one of those snippets of information is actually true, because a reader can hardly leave a story that calls so alluringly.
The speaker is eleven-year old Jason Lowry and he is fixated on trying to find out who his father is. He is living with his mother; she is not quite 30 and won’t answer the question for him, quite possibly because she doesn’t know. She manages to pay the rent by providing a free service to their randy landlord and uses the hint of the same to keep the local policeman off her case. She smokes ‘rollies’, has an endless supply of vodka and works at a local deli whenever she feels like it.
As the story progresses, Jason finds uncertain companionship from a girl of his own age whose main obsession is whether her ‘knockers’ are noticeable. We never learn her name and by the end of the book, the reader may well wonder whether she exists at all except in the mind of the troubled Jason. Come to think of it, the reader may speculate on Jason also and may need to consider whether the logic of the story should take second place to the exuberance of the telling.
Take Jason for example. He has the mind and concerns of a timid eleven-year old, used to being beaten up by older boys. But when he interacts with others, even with his bullies, he takes on the voice and mannerisms of a much older wisecracking smartass – think Sam Spade or James Bond.
Then there is the town in the Irish midlands where the story is set. It is less a real place than an amalgam of all the things the story needs: a bridge from which folk jump to their deaths, an unfinished shopping centre, a hill section where the rich live and which invites vandalism, a place where young hoons gather to do loud wheelies, a laneway where the drunks congregate around a small fire, a swamp whose wonky KEEP OUT sign maintains high-vis workers in employment.
And the residents are selected for their use to the writer rather than to the story: Flukey Nolan whom Jason thinks may be his father, the McManus brothers called Brains and No-brains who beat him up whenever they meet, Slug Doyle, Lily the Nose and the inseparable duo Harry Brewster and Fergal Flood, one half-deaf, the other blind in one eye.
The book is set in 2009, ‘the summer after all the money disappeared. One minute it was here. The next it had vanished. All of it. Without trace.’ Which brings me back to the speculation that while Jason may inspire our sympathy and his mother our censure, we may miss what the book is doing. In the context of modern Irish writers, Kevin Barry (City of Bohane) provides the location, Donal Ryan (The Spinning Heart) gives the post-crash setting, while Jason seems like a younger version of Patrick McCabe’s Butcher Boy. And by coincidence, each of those three authors provides an endorsement of the book on the front or back cover.
This is not to take from the enjoyment of the story, but to suggest that it is less a logical narrative than a kind of extended writing exercise, a way for the author to allow his imagination to take control of his pen. And since that puts him in distinguished company of people like Flann O’Brien and James Joyce, it should be treated as praise, not as censure.
Darkly comic and quite enthralling.
Frank is a member of the Tinteán editorial team.