David Keenan initially made his name as a musician and music journalist (check out his work for The Wire), and his debut novel, This Is Memorial Device, was exactly the kind of discordant, glorious brilliance you’d hope might have emerged from the experimental Scottish scene: it’s a fragmentary, foul-mouthed and hallucinatory account of the rise and fall of the best band nobody’s ever heard of – and if that sounds like it’s been done before, well, it really hasn’t. Memorial Device will leave you reeling. As for the new one: think Roddy Doyle’s The Van crossed with Kevin Barry’s Beatlebone and Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude; throw in the IRA, Perry Como and a dab of cos-play, and you’re maybe in the right territory.
Sammy’s working for The Boys. That is to say: he’s a Provo. He’s in the Ra. He’s grown up in the Ardoyne, Belfast, in the 1960s and 70s, his dad’s a headcase, and the IRA are the only ones protecting the family and their neighbours from the British Special Forces – never mind the UVF and the UDA and the RUC. Now it’s the 1980s, the hunger strikes are kicking off, and Sammy’s time is nigh. He’s a foot-soldier for the Republicans and he’s shooting up the ranks alongside his pals Tommy and Barney, sharp dressers and Perry Como fanatics to a man. They’re sent on raids; they’re running a comic-book store; they’re seeking out blow-jobs and fantasising about their superhero alter-egos. Everything’s going all right for Sammy until he gets involved with Kathy M, a woman he’d once (ineptly) kidnapped: bit by bit, as the violence escalates, as the crooners give way to the punks, as the wrong people die, as mistrust starts to taint the ranks, all Sammy’s certainties begin to dissolve.
For The Good Times is unrelenting. There’s a scene where Sammy’s speeding down a residential road in a getaway car with Tommy strapped to the roof firing off rounds at a police roadblock: the whole way through this book, we’re up there too, strapped to Tommy, screaming. It’s violent – and I mean truly, sickeningly violent – and hilarious and affectionate and romantic and sarcastic. It’s written in Sammy’s Belfast vernacular, and it’s got the same choppy format as Keenan’s first book (imagine Bret Easton Ellis started riffing off Jenny Offill), and just as beltingly realistic voices, and, similarly, its seemingly anecdotal structure disguises how very tightly plotted it really is. As for the themes: well, Sammy’s partisan – of course he is – but if you’re shaky on your Northern Irish political history (/if you’re English) this isn’t a half bad primer. (Read it alongside Milkman for maximum value.) Like any good book about any complex subject, this one rips its stereotypes apart – sectarian stereotypes, in this case. Keenan reels us in with comically brutal set pieces about Sammy’s career – the assaults and reprisals and the digging-up of arms caches – but that’s only a skin-deep reading. Sammy’s a killer, okay, but nobody’s just a killer: wherever you fall on the political spectrum, in any country, the word ‘terrorist’ tells us very little. This is a brilliantly funny book, but it’s also tragic: Sammy’s friends and family are murdered, his allies betray him, his future’s never coming true and he knows it. It’s a book that deals in idealism and so plays upon the mythic – Sammy’s own myths entwine genuine Hibernian legend with the world of DC Comics, as Keenan weaves a new superhero saga – but it’s a myth that leads only to rows upon rows of coffins, just as Sammy’s path leads him inevitably to the Maze, where Margaret Thatcher is letting Bobby Sands (MP) starve to death. And though it might sound otherwise, this isn’t a book that overtly supports the Republican cause (except to the extent that Keenan’s books clearly don’t offer any support to the Conservative cause): rather, it’s a book that, like any worthy piece of war literature, seeks to dismantle the simplistic portrayal of conflict as Good vs Bad. Everyone’s good, everyone’s bad, and, moreover, everyone’s hurting and everyone’s bewildered.
Any Cop?: I’ll be surprised if many books I read this year impress me this much. But don’t give it to Jacob Rees-Mogg: he’ll only try to blow the whole province sky-high.