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