A début novel from an Irish writer you probably haven’t yet heard of (unless you caught our mention of her excellent story, ‘Saturday, Boring’, in Kevin Barry’s edited collection, Town & Country, a couple of years back), but one about whom, we predict, you’ll be soon be hearing a huge amount, Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies is every bit as nuanced and sad and sharp as we’d have hoped, and as gloriously expansive and manic and iconoclastic as the title suggests.
Ostensibly it’s something of a vast and knotty crime saga: an inadvertent (if not exactly unlikely) murder in a Cork flat belonging to the city’s own Godfather figure, Jimmy Phelan, triggers a chaotic chain of effects and reactions and counter-reactions. The killer, Jimmy’s long-lost mother, Maureen, has to be kept quiet about what happened, and likewise, Tony Cusack, the spineless and alcoholic widower hauled in by Jimmy to do the necessary waste disposal, is a talkative liability. Meanwhile Georgie, the prostitute girlfriend of poor, dead Robbie (her junkie pimp-slash-lover), is trying, and failing, to go clean, while her dealer, Tony Cusack’s eldest son, fifteen year-old Ryan, is fast-tracking his way towards filling Jimmy’s intimidating boots, while also praying he’ll turn out nothing like his dad and prove good enough for his girlfriend’s love. Throw in the creepy pedophilia of Tony’s next-door neighbour Tara Duane, a cabal of hypocritical holy do-gooders determined to ‘save’ Georgie, and assortment of wasted teenagers and minor henchmen and, above it all, the simmering threat and fucked-up condolence that is Cork city itself, and you’ve got a multi-threader that’s so sprawling, and yet so tight, that it’s a wonder this is anybody’s first novel.
So, we liked it. Actually, we loved it. The prose is anything but the acerbic simplicity of Chandler or Hammett (though we love that too): it’s closer to the exuberant verbosity of Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane (no wonder Barry blurbed it), though it’s without that book’s fantastical apocalypticism: this is pure realism, filtered through a set of voices whose desperation is keeningly expressive. You’ve got a kid who’s struggling with bereavement and domestic violence, dealing to keep himself in spare change, and falling in love, and you’re following him through five years of fuck-ups and regrets and mistakes and reprisals; you’ve got a woman caught in a bitter spiral of prostitution and addiction and whose attempt to haul herself out is met with middle-class disgust and judgment; you’ve got the panic and stupidity and love and fear of a bad father who’s only getting worse; even Maureen, whose escalating oddity nears Flannery O’Connor levels of twisted grace and vengeance, is never beyond belief. It took us a few pages, granted, to settle into it: Ryan’s opener – the loss of his virginity – felt, at first, too self-consciously literary, and we weren’t entirely sure, again initially, about the first-person interludes, but then the internal logic and the rhythm of the book took over, and the risks McInerney’s taking – the linguistic flights, the resulting density of the text, and, possibly, for international readers, the idiosyncratic musicality of Corkonian speech patterns – pay off in scores. There’s nothing false or put on or unauthentic in the entire book: every exchange, every physical description or internal flight of fancy is both vivid and precise, and entirely motivated by character and circumstance rather than by any self-indulgent impulse on the writer’s part. In fact, if we were forced to slap a tag on it, it would be empathy: rarely does such a unrelenting shower of wretches and messes populate a book, and yet we were rooting for them all, even Jimmy Phelan (though, okay, maybe not quite so much Tara Duane, though we had a pang for her, finally, too) – McInerney is invested in each of them equally, minor and major characters alike; none were grist for the others’ respective mills. Ryan, perhaps, as he more or less bookends the novel, is the tentative hero, but McInerney takes no shortcuts with what you might predict to be the supporting cast. If we were to gripe, we’d maybe have liked a little more of Karine (Ryan’s girlfriend), but that’s more in the nature of ‘I could have kept reading for another hundred pages’, rather than ‘that was a dodgy omission’.
A final word on location: as with English novels, there’s a default pair of settings with Irish novels – the capital or the countryside, with little in between save notional small towns with predictable discontents. So it’s a refreshing relief to see Cork in the spotlight this time, and it was with a jolt of embarrassment that we realized we had assumed that the Liffey rather than the Lee would make itself known. McInerney’s Cork is precariously lethal; stuffed with drugs and brothels and petty (and not so petty) crime, it’s not that far from Bohane, really, and its suffocating horror seems, at times, to be a more visceral expression of the disappointment and distaste Joyce hints towards, with the other city, in Dubliners. But for all that, this novel brings the ‘real capital’ to glorious life, and not before time; if, as Maureen reckons, fire is cleansing, then the scorching to which McInerney has subjected Cork might well herald its literary renaissance.
Any Cop?: Oh, yeah. McInerney is to Cork as Lethem is to Brooklyn; this is a fantastic début, an addictive read, and, we hope, a future prize-winner.