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This is the Country

By William Wall

Having written elsewhere in highly laudatory terms about William Wall’s previous novels Alice Falling and The Map of Tenderness, which together with his second outing Minding Children form a powerfully disenchanted triumvirate, this reviewer is not now about to renege on this prize-winning Corkonian poet and short story writer, whose work he finds in equal measure lyrical, visceral and intriguing. However, recurring patterns and themes are beginning to emerge, and this is not always an entirely satisfying experience for the reader.

Here, Wall is again probing the often vicious and violent, or painful and perverse, undercurrents bubbling away below respectable facades, be they that of what goes on behind the nebulous, catch-all term ‘society’ in general, when used as a cover for individual lives, or that of individuals’ public lives and behaviour, their social selves, being wildly at variance with their private practices. The previous three books dealt respectively with sadomasochism and ephebephilia, child abuse and serial murder, and terminal illness and euthanasia, and were chillingly but sensitively handled. This time we are introduced to yet another terminally alienated central character – a social outcast from birth, hovering on the fringes of the criminal underworld – but the brushstrokes are broader. Granted, it is almost always salutary to see a writer giving voice to the pain, rage, anger and hurt of the marginalised and forgotten, especially these days when a fair proportion of Irish literary production seems hell-bent on reflecting the values which inform the lifestyle sections of our newspapers, and everyone is convinced that we’ve never had it so good. But, in order to work effectively, the social criticism must be smarter and sharper than the mindsets it is directed against, rather than merely seeming like a knee-jerk default setting. Wall is in danger of straying into identikit angst.

 

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It has been said that most writers are just telling the same story over and over again in different ways, but committed fans generally like to see some sort of discernable progression in world view from one book to the next. While the suits would certainly tell us that branding is essential to market place identification, true devotees appreciate a bit of variety, especially when it comes to points of view. There are worse crimes, after all, than driving a Merc, or even a Mitsubishi Pajéro (Spanish slang for ‘wanker’, by the way, trivia fans), as the villainous bankers/politicians/auctioneers/crooks of Wall’s novels always seem to do. Their wives and/or girlfriends are invariably busty blondes, too. Such handy signifiers of aspirational but blinkered, cut-throat materialism can begin to irritate in their obviousness, and rapidly descend into cliché. Whatever they may say about the state of their owners’ souls, perhaps what matters more is how these characters came by the wherewithal to acquire these toys in the first place. As it stands, our old whipping boys and girls, the bourgeoisie – insofar as they read books at all – might be beginning to opine that this writer chappy has what they regularly dismiss anyone who criticises them as having, that is, ‘a chip on his shoulder’.

The first person narrator, who tellingly remains nameless until the last sentence of the novel, when a cop (or ‘shade’ as they are known in the local parlance) for the first time dignifies him with a personal form of address, is the son of a prostitute, junkie mother, with no knowledge of his father. With his hospital porter friend Max, he rapidly becomes immersed in the drug culture of the housing estate where he grows up, which in turn leads him into contact with the local criminal element, in the shape of Pat ‘The Baker’ Baker (he of the Merc). After Max dies of tetanus, he goes on a downward spiral.

He falls for Pat The Baker’s younger sister, Jazz (short for Jacinta), and has his legs broken by Pat for his trouble. After he gets out of hospital, he gets a trade as a mechanic, and eventually goes into hiding with Jazz and their daughter Kaylie in an unspecified port town, where he works repairing boats’ diesel engines, styling himself a marine engineer. But The Baker has not let up his vendetta, and kidnaps our hero’s mother. When no contact is made, she is murdered. Then, when Jazz is accidentally shot dead in his stead, Kaylie is taken into care, and a struggle with social services begins to get his daughter back. The sequence where he kidnaps her and tries to escape by sailing to France is both moving and exhilarating.

There are several bit-parts along the way, like Dan Kelleher the auctioneer and gombeen politician (he of the Pajero), and Pete Townsend, the drug-addled scrap-metal dealer. But where the novel is most successful is less in its pot-shots at stock characters, and more in its revulsion at ‘the system’. The keen-eyed satire of an NA meeting is a good example:

[Excerpt] "They say everybody has one good story. These people all had their story down mint. They all talked. They were accepting responsibility all over the place. Everything that ever happened to them was their won fault. Like they didn’t grow up in a shithouse estate with junkies shooting up and friends and relations going down for things they never accepted responsibility for. I was waiting for anyone to declare his innocence. It did not happen. It seems they all had choices. At one point in their life they cold have turned into something else, a contributing adult, a businessman or some useful member of the community with no habit and a happy family. They all could have had a good address if they made the right choice. But they chose to be junkies. Like who ever chose to be a fucking junkie? I wasn’t buying that. When it came to me I said: Not guilty, I blame everyone else. They all shook their heads and just quietly looked at me. I was sitting there listening to these no-hope heroin addicts and alkies and for the sake of the story I’m trying to think of one time, just one time, when I decided I would take a pill that might not be good for my digestion. I never came up with one".

Similarly, its depiction of social workers as the scum of the earth (second only to psychiatrists, in this reviewer’s estimation) is gratifying, and can certainly be identified with – as long as one accepts that the panoply of social services is an ongoing middle-class conspiracy at the expense of poor people.

That said, the narrative remains too amorphous and repetitive much of the time to hold the interest consistently. While this is a worthy novel, those new to Wall would be well-advised to start with one of his other books, where his empathy with outsiders is more subtly expressed.

First published in The Irish Book Review

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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