Charlie is the gamal. Gamal is apparently short for the Irish word gamalog. Charlie, who narrates Ciaran Collins’s astonishingly good debut novel, doesn’t know exactly what gamalog means, but he has a fair idea. As does the reader. To call someone the gamal is to call them slow, dim-witted, below the average levels of intelligence. Gamal, in Charlie’s mind, means village idiot. And throughout this novel, about a string of tragedies that alter life in the Irish town of Ballyronan for good, it is very possible to think that Charlie is exactly what his friends and family have nicknamed him. But we can never be quite sure.
Charlie only has two real friends. James and Sinead. The kids he grows up with, and the two people he remains with constantly as they form a relationship that goes beyond friendship. As James and Sinead fall in love, Charlie is there. As they dream about a singing career, which may be a real possibility for at least Sinead, Charlie is with them every step of the way, encouraging them, helping them to write songs with wonderful insights which often suggest he is not the gamal we may be led to believe. The rest of the novel’s cast is largely made up by a group of teenagers who are at first friendly with the inseparable trio. But as James and Sinead start to stand out from a crowd of typical teenagers, James because of his sporting prowess and his rich family, Sinead for her singing and her beauty, and the two of them for finding a kind of love the others can’t in this tiny town, trouble starts to brew. The people who have always been their friends become something disturbingly different.
From the novel’s outset we know that some kind of tragedy has reduced Charlie to a depressed and sleep-deprived wreck. The Gamal is narrated as if it’s the journal he keeps for his counsellor and the primary tool he will use to exorcise the demons of whatever it is he has been through. We also know that many people have accused Charlie of some kind of pivotal role in the tragedy. Charlie, though, is one of the most appealing characters in modern literature. He’s forthright, funny, at times so simple sounding that you just want to hug him, and at others, painstakingly wise for one so maligned. He is a complicated and wonderfully managed creation. Collins has pulled off a very rare trick in making readers absolutely adore a character, without ever quite knowing if they’ve gotten to the bottom of him.
It’s not only the characters that set Collins’s debut out as something truly exciting. With a very unique voice, Collins pieces the story together using court transcripts, snatches of song lyrics, photographs, drawings, and many other means. It’s a playful work, which often has Charlie pleading his ignorance when it comes to writing and reading. He claims to not even know books have chapters until a quarter of the way in. And the best thing is that none of these unusual methods feel like gimmicks or cheap tricks. When Charlie withholds key information for the majority of the narrative, we don’t feel cheated or frustrated. Collins justifies everything. He strings out the novel’s mystery by creating a convincing character and a believable psychological situation, which will have the reader laughing and crying in equal measure.
Any Cop?: The Gamal is one of the most enjoyable, inventive, and riveting novels published in a very, very long time. It will literally keep you awake at night. You’ll read it in 100 page bursts and curse yourself for not savouring it for a little longer. You’ll be thinking about it obsessively for days after you finish, trying to convince yourself that the conclusion you drew at the end was the right one, maybe hoping it wasn’t, but knowing you might never be sure. If it was down to me, I’d send all the literary judging panels home early this year and just give the prizes to Ciaran Collins. It’s difficult to see a better book coming out in 2013.