Like Joyce’s Finnegans Wake Claire Kilroy’s The Devil I Know is set around “Howth Castle & Environs”. Tristram St Lawrence is the “young master” of the Castle, the disreputable son who has escaped Dublin to work as a translator for the mysterious Monsieur Deauville. In Dublin it is believed that Tristram is dead until a plane crash lands him back in Dublin, back in the Castle and working as a property speculator in the Ireland of the Celtic Tiger.
Unlike the spiritual paralysis of Joyce’s Dublin with its humble (and guilty) pleasures this is a Dublin that delights in financial extravagance, where opulence is now available to all. The new found wealth comes at a price, crushing individuality: “Money kills the imagination. It makes us want the same thing.” Tristram comes to realise that the insatiable greed unleashed by speculation based on endless, unquestioning, credit comes from native Irish traditions: “That’s what happens when you rear a nation to chase after leprechauns an crocks a gold. Then the Lotto come in an we all chased after that instead.” Property speculation is redrawing Irish history: “we’re invading London not with armies but with hard currency.”
Kilroy’s language is as freely associative as Joyce’s, drawing on the same literary and cultural traditions but with a manic zip that plays with the double meaning of ‘debt‘ (a financial obligation and a moral duty: “A debt must be settled. That is the nature of a debt”.) The novel’s plot echoes that of the movie Angel Heart (starring Mickey Rourke and Robert de Niro, though anyone who saw it as a teenage boy will mainly remember Lisa Bonet) with its noirish notions of pacts, morality and the sale of a soul.
The Devil I Know is a wonderful novel, its inventive, satirical depiction of Irish society (its politics, fallen morality and more), and a delight in how gloriously deep the corruption runs that Flann O‘Brien would have recognised. It is written with notes of farce and pantomime, its characters are touched with the grotesque, but only through such exaggerations can Kilroy hope to portray the reality of a country gone mad with greed. What fiction could ever match the real story of Sean Quinn who managed to gamble a small remote farm into a billion-pound property empire spanning the world, the bankrupt who was once Ireland‘s richest man?
Any Cop?: It’s hard to believe that a better Irish novel will be published this year, its ambition and scope matched with a comic energy that draws as much from ’Father Ted’ as James Joyce.