Oh Johnny we hardly knew ye

The Weekend Australian - Review - - BOOKS - Ro­nan McDon­ald

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

Ire­land

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