Trou­bling truths in a height­ened tale of mur­der­ous boys in 1970s Belfast

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS | REVIEWS - EOIN Mc­NAMEE

FORTHEGOOD­TIMES DAVID KEENAN Faber & Faber, 368pp, £12.99

It was the first of the sum­mers of blood. The hand­somest boys in Ar­doyne have mur­der in their hearts, Perry Como on their lips and good times on their mind. David Keenan said his first novel, This Is Me­mo­rial De­vice, was a per­sonal hal­lu­ci­na­tion – in For the Good Times North­ern Ire­land in the 1970s is a col­lec­tive hal­lu­ci­na­tion, a mes­sianic in-joke laced with high-oc­tane, foul-mouthed and ul­tra-vi­o­lent high jinks. The boys are IRA or some­thing like it – noth­ing’s sim­ple in this world ex­cept the sex and vi­o­lence. Some­times you’re in a six-county slasher epic, in other times tran­scen­dence in­ter­poses.

The story goes like this: the boys emerge from Ar­doyne, all guns blaz­ing. Pulp mur­der is the modus operandi: their tar­gets are shot in the face, butchered in front of their moth­ers; kid­nap and in­tim­i­da­tion part of the rou­tine.

The aes­thetic is that of the New Eng­land Li­brary of the 1970s, the Sk­in­head and Hell’s An­gels books. The boys take over a comic book shop. The nar­ra­tor, Sammy (or some­times Xa­muel – Belfast boy as Blakeian fallen an­gel) falls for the owner’s wife. There’s leo­tard and leg­ging sex on ny­lon sheets in the Europa Ho­tel. There are con­ver­sa­tions with the dead. There are the H-Blocks and Bobby Sands.

Tommy is the charis­matic one. He’s the charmer, the lounge crooner stand­ing in the gates of hell, the one the girls adore. He’s the one strapped to the roof of the get­away car, guns blaz­ing as the boys exit Dun­dalk af­ter a hit.

Ev­ery­thing is trans­fig­ured. The au­thor of the Sniper at Work signs emerges as a scorched and dis­fig­ured sit­u­a­tion­ist, the burnt man who locked him­self into the Bri­tish em­bassy and into his art in Dublin when it was torched by Bloody Sun­day pro­test­ers in 1972. There is a par­al­lel nar­ra­tive where Neu­trino and the Anom­aly en­ter the Dead Zone, the comic book world drop­ping through a black hole into the present of spilled blood and sor­rows. Nordie ar­gots fleshed-out into tes­ta­men­tary chant. Bad Paddy jokes re­peated un­til they be­come in­can­ta­tion. Rene­gade nights in Belfast ren­dered as high-end manga.

Cos­mic art­ful­ness

The driven, fu­ri­ous nar­ra­tive holds it to­gether, ev­ery­thing tee­ter­ing at the edge of com­pre­hen­sion. You can’t tear your eyes away. Which is what it was like. The real thing felt more like For the Good Times than it did like any­thing else. Un­der the cos­mic art­ful­ness there is a hard­core au­then­tic­ity to this telling.

There is a min­ing of the un­ex­pected com­ing out of the North. You’d be afraid to call it a move­ment, you’d be brave to call it a reimag­in­ing. The honed nar­ra­tives are com­ing apart un­der their own necrotic weight, the well-made mak­ing way for the frac­tals of bro­ken con­scious­ness. Anna Burns. Michael Hughes. What it says is this: it can be told as many ways as you like, the 30 years of war can bear as many mean­ings as you can layer on to it and still feel beyond hu­man prece­dent. The North as dystopian dead zone. The North as Ouroboros. The play­ers have ceded the ground to art, and who can tell whether that is a good or a bad thing?

Noth­ing here is go­ing to end well. The boys are go­ing to pay for the glory days. Tommy is a bad end wait­ing to hap­pen and the hunger strikes are just around the cor­ner. Be­trayal is al­ways on the cards and the boys have been un­der­mined from the start. Honey traps have been set, and the viruses spread. Brit in­tel­li­gence steps into the frame. The Belfast ’Ra, it seems, are “Pathogens of our own mak­ing ... psy­chopathoge­ns. That’s an­other word for a fe­nian bas­tard and we’re flood­ing the mar­ket.”

Aware­ness of the flesh wa­ter­marks: flesh tor­tured and el­e­vated, bru­tal and love­less sex, the mor­ti­fi­ca­tion of the self-starved, Christ dis­play­ing his wounds. The burnt man med­i­tates on the flesh as a prison and a penance.

Faith­ful to the core

There’s a cul­tural map of the era run­ning through For the Good Times: Donna Sum­mer and the Furry Freak Broth­ers, Old Spice and the Ti­betan Book of the Dead, but th­ese are the tex­tures of the time and they are there as de­tail and way­post, faith­ful to the core. Keenan has a way of pulling the rug out from un­der you – one minute you’re in a freeze-frame from some un­der-the-counter glossy mag of the pe­riod, dark­ness fall­ing on the streets out­side, the next you’re fall­ing through a spi­ral neb­ula of bril­liantly con­ceived anime pas­tiche.

Amer­i­can poet Amy Clampitt wrote “street gangs amok among mag­no­lia’s ten­der wands”, and it is imag­is­tic jux­ta­po­si­tion that feeds the deep-felt com­pas­sion and pro­fun­dity of this book. Here’s Sammy in the H-Blocks dur­ing the hunger strikes: “If you could en­ter the eyes of a dead man, the black in­scrutable eyes of a dead man, at mass, in H3, in the years of the hunger strikes, then you would come to know that heaven and hell are just party games played for the ben­e­fit of the liv­ing.”

This is vi­sion­ary fic­tion, oc­cult in in­tent, bril­liant in ex­e­cu­tion. The North’s be­quest of the un­said and the never-to-be-said are be­gin­ning to be ad­dressed, with Keenan among salu­tary oth­ers find­ing the words.

‘‘ The driven, fu­ri­ous nar­ra­tive holds it to­gether, ev­ery­thing tee­ter­ing at the edge of com­pre­hen­sion. You can’t tear your eyes away. Which is what it was like

PHO­TO­GRAPH: KEY­STONE/ GETTY IM­AGES

School­boys gig­gling while be­ing searched by a Bri­tish sol­dier in the Ar­doyne area of Belfast in 1971.

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