A re­al­is­tic tale of the un­ex­pected with a mor­bid plan at its core

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - BOOKS - DAR­RAGH McMANUS

This third novel from Lim­er­ick man Dan Mooney (in­set), the press re­lease in­forms us, was orig­i­nally due to be re­leased (by UK in­de­pen­dent Legend) ear­lier this year. That got pushed back to now af­ter his first two books were sold in a “highly lu­cra­tive” deal with pub­lish­ing giants Harper­Collins USA.

I can see why. The Great Un­ex­pected has the feel of a Nick Hornby or Tony Par­sons novel: easy to read, ac­ces­si­ble, well-crafted, funny at times, sen­ti­men­tal, more-or-less re­al­is­tic. It has a good, sim­ple hook at its cen­tre and pos­si­bly huge com­mer­cial po­ten­tial. It’s the sort of thing you could eas­ily imag­ine be­ing made into a not-too-bad movie or TV se­ries.

The hook here is that Joel Mon­roe, a can­tan­ker­ous old man stuck in a nurs­ing home called Hill­top, is sick of life and wants to kill him­self. When Frank Adams — AKA Frank de Selby, one-time thes­pian of note — ar­rives as a room­mate, they set about de­vis­ing the per­fect sui­cide. It has to be suit­ably dra­matic, Frank in­sists, but also dig­ni­fied and au­then­tic, some­thing that cap­tures the essence of Joel.

Joel is a man’s man, to some de­gree, though more of a grump than a proper ma­cho id­iot. Frank is a gay, mildly camp “ack-tohr, dahling” type.

Nat­u­rally, they hate each other at first. They are, as Homer Simp­son once er­ro­neously re­marked, “the orig­i­nal odd cou­ple”.

But as the two men get to know one another — which is in­evitable, given that both are “in­mates” in Hill­top, stuck to­gether al­most all day — a grudg­ing re­spect takes seed. This slowly blos­soms into friend­ship, af­fec­tion, even some­thing close to love.

Along the way, Frank en­cour­ages Joel to “break out” with him.

They scale a wall at the bot­tom of the gar­den, wan­der around town, have pints in the pub, cadge lifts, bor­row money, play cards with strangers and gen­er­ally have a whale of a time.

All the while, Joel is con­tin­u­ing his plans for shuf­fling off this mor­tal coil. The rea­son he de­sires sui­cide is sim­ple: his beloved wife is dead, his daugh­ter Eva hates him (so Joel be­lieves, any­way), his grand­chil­dren think he’s a joke. The only peo­ple he likes in Hill­top are Una, a fel­low res­i­dent, and Liam, a kind young nurse. As his friend­ship with Frank pro­gresses, how­ever, Joel starts to feel that maybe — just maybe — there’s a point to it all. And maybe he won’t go ahead with this mor­bid plan. Then again: maybe he will…

A sui­cide theme has the po­ten­tial to go badly wrong, es­pe­cially when black hu­mour is such a large part of the story, and the tone of its telling. But The Great Un­ex­pected strikes a nigh-on per­fect bal­ance: Mooney finds the bit­ter laugh­ter in bad things, but it comes across as sen­si­tive and re­spect­ful.

I wasn’t so im­pressed with the vaguely de­ra­ci­nated feel of the book. This seems to be par for the course in this genre — Hornby’s books don’t feel es­pe­cially “Bri­tish” ei­ther. They’re en­gi­neered to ap­peal to the widest pos­si­ble au­di­ence, I guess.

So, while The Great Un­ex­pected is set in Ire­land (I’m al­most cer­tain) and the di­a­logue/slang is mostly Hiberno-English, most of the characters don’t have Ir­ish names; cul­tural ref­er­ences are am­bigu­ous or un­spec­i­fied; towns and streets are left name­less. In short, there’s very lit­tle to defini­tively tie the novel to here. But many read­ers won’t even no­tice and most prob­a­bly won’t care.

The Great Un­ex­pected is an en­joy­able novel — al­most ex­actly what you’d ex­pect, which sounds like a bit of a back­handed com­pli­ment but isn’t meant to be. There’s noth­ing wrong with genre fic­tion, and within each spe­cific genre, you want cer­tain con­ven­tions and tra­di­tions.

Thrillers must fea­ture a dam­aged, sexy anti-hero. Hor­ror must be slightly over­writ­ten. Sci-fi must fre­quently use terms such as “terra” and “jack­ing-in”. And Bloke Lit (or what­ever the cor­rect la­bel is) must not break any new ground but in­stead tell its story with care, hu­mour and charm. The Great Un­ex­pected does just that.

Dar­ragh McManus’s nov­els in­clude Shiver the Whole Night Through and The Polka Dot Girl

FIC­TION The Great Un­ex­pected Dan MooneyLegend Press, pa­per­back, 328 pages, €10

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