Oh Johnny we hardly knew ye
A Mad and Wonderful Thing By Mark Mulholland Scribe, 288pp, $29.99
NOVELS of the Northern Irish Troubles often hinge on a major secret. From Bernard MacLaverty’s Cal (1983), through Seamus Deane’s Reading in the Dark (1996) to David Park’s The Truth Commissioner (2008), this civil strife, with its neighbourly hatreds and colonial paralysis, feeds a fiction of evasion, subterfuge, betrayal. “O land of password, handgrip, wink and nod,/Of open minds as open as a trap,” as Seamus Heaney puts it.
Set during the early 1990s, Mark Mulholland’s uneven debut novel A Mad and Wonderful Thing also deploys secrecy as a plot device. Johnny Donnelly works in an engineering plant but has a clandestine life as an IRA sniper. Mister Delaney, his former history teacher, has recruited him. Donnelly’s girlfriend Cora Flannery, with whom he falls in love early in this novel, knows nothing of these activities. Neither do his placid working-class family, nor Eamon Gaughran and the other friends with whom he trawls the Dundalk pubs, snooker halls and nightclubs on a Saturday night.
Humiliation breeds violence. One episode that seems common to the formation of the modern terrorist, retold from Algeria, to Palestine to Northern Ireland, is the boy witnessing the humiliation of his father at the hands of security forces. Mulholland reproduces this primal scene: Donnelly recounts the day his family was driving back across the border from the North when they were pulled over by a British patrol. Johnny is six. A soldier sticks a gun barrel into his father’s mouth through the car window and threatens to shoot him. “Pissed his f..king pants mate,” the soldiers laugh as they jaunt off. “I knew that one day I would take a big black gun to those soldiers,” Donnelly resolves.
He pursues his grim campaign through political conviction, cold rationale and carefully determined practice: the British are invaders and must be forced out of Ireland. He stands up to bullies. Even as a child he devises an elaborate plan, involving a slingshot, to rain retribution on to the local teenage thug.
This foreshadowing suggests the crown forces are the aggressors and the IRA sniper the heroic rebel, but this would be only partly true. If we have a glimpse of how Donnelly becomes politicised, there is nonetheless little day-to-day interaction with the British here (“five miles away — it might as well be five hundred”) and his family and Cora are horrified by the bombing and brutal murders on the news.
The narrative is first person, snappy and direct, though leavened with descriptive passages and, later, dream sequences and forays into the supernatural. There are some fine passages, a pitch-perfect description of the Dundalk accent and atmospheric, suspense-filled accounts of paramilitary engagements. On the other hand, the sex scenes are risibly cliched — “the sheen of the black triangle, a sliver of silk before the inveighling chalice, inviting, enchanting, the slipway to oblivion” — and the romantic exchanges are generally clunky.
The foremost non-naturalist device that Mulholland uses is the regular appearance of Bob Hanratty, an older friend from the engineering works who died soon after retirement. Bob’s questions to Donnelly are a way to probe his motivations and question his actions, to pit against his fanaticism the liberal and humane view: “To many England has been a refuge. To many, England has been a bright light on a dark shore. And to many they are welcome here.”
There are dilemmas and choices facing Donnelly as he tries to reconcile the different sides to his life. Along the way are some pleasing passages and plot twists, though also some senti- mentality and recognisable cliches of the genre. Mr Delaney, for instance, “all collar and tie, articulate, pedantic, annoying”, belongs to a toorecognisable type of the IRA godfather — overpunctilious and austere. Donnelly himself belongs to another stereotype: the troubled, intense, heroic gunman. He is philosophical, bookish, witty, irreverent, flirtatious. Women fall for his charisma with alarming ease. His strike rate at the bars and discos seems even higher than those with his “big black gun”. Yes, for all his much telegraphed depth and charm, I found his swagger, earnestness and especially his philosophising wearisome and overbearing.
There has been a good deal of pre-publi- cation hype for this novel, published in Australia by the imprint Scribe, and my hopes were high. Yet for all its brashness and brio it is often wincingly turgid. The dialogue can be creaky, the braggadocio and masculinity tiring. The narrative is swathed with heavy-handed mythological allusions, especially to Cuchulainn, the ancient Irish hero and defender of Ulster. This mythic scaffold is a portentous distraction, an effort to imbue significance and high ‘‘literary’’ effect into a first novel that, at its best, can be vivid and gripping.
A sign of the times in 1997
warning of sniper danger in Northern