‘FUCKING Glasgow, my friend, it’s just like Belfast, the same rivalries, the same segregated pubs, the same halls, the same murals, the same fucking teams; a friendly city once you get to know it. Plus you’re just as likely to get stabbed for your colours as you are back home, so as you know where you stand as soon as you’re off the boat.’ It’s a familiar idea, the one that Scotland and Northern Ireland are places separated only by water. There are people on both sides still devoted to the strange old intimacies, but intimacy isn’t the same as imitation. The two places are the same-but-different, arguably more different than they are the same. Only, here’s David Keenan from Airdrie, the author of a novel so convincingly immersed in Northern Ireland as to make you think maybe they’re the same after all.
Keenan’s first novel was an imagined oral history of the post-punk scene in Lanarkshire. This Is Memorial Device was a loving tribute to the power of teenage dreams and a disorientating journey through the tangle of relationships that grow up in small towns everywhere. Its major achievement was proving once again that words can turn anyone into a hero. The book had a mad whippet energy and there was a distinct feeling that the first-time novelist was giving everything he had, which is a way of saying maybe he gave too much. The same can be said unquestionably about his new book.
How to summarize For The Good Times? It’s a story about four members of the IRA, set predominantly in 1970s Belfast, narrated years later by one of their number, Sammy, as a sort of last will and testament before he assumes a different identity and forgets the whole sorry mess that was his life. The gang gets up to the usual things: murder (often savage), beatings (often more savage), kidnappings and bombings. Like the IRA members briefly mentioned in Keenan’s first book, they love Perry Como and venerate his supposedly clean-living ways. They are the ghosts in a haunted city. ‘They could move around Belfast without making a sound. They could float above the pavements and rise up, into the skies, on mass, when they had to. That’s how they got away with murder.’
A truer sense of the novel’s nature might be conveyed by simply listing some things that stick in the mind after reading. Circling around the core of the story, such as it is, are religious skits, acid trips and superhero interludes. Paddy and Mick jokes are everywhere. There are cosmic riffs about snakes that draw from the stories of Saint Patrick and Adam and Eve. A real snake is flushed down the toilet. A minor character gets a music career, another sells plastic bullets repurposed as Christmas decorations. Our boys go about murdering in a van with Mickey Mouse painted on the side. They take over a comic book shop and one of them finds a girlfriend called Robin (as in, Batman and Robin). A character called Miracle Baby wanders the streets covered in snot and telling the future. There’s something about a spirit animal called Harry the Hedgehog. Sammy stashes a bomb under his bed and it blows up his mum. ‘There was nothing to put in my ma’s coffin,’ he remembers, ‘but bits of bone, a framed picture of JFK, a souvenir magazine with the Queen’s face on it, a clump of dark hair and a clasp.’ Here’s Sammy recalling his first encounter with another member of the gang: ‘I first met Tommy when he was trying to sell me a set of golf clubs in the street on Christmas Eve. He was selling these gold clubs out the back of a car, in the Ardoyne, in the snow. I says to him, where did these clubs come from, and he says to me that he shot somebody for them and that he was selling them to pay for his dry cleaning.’ This is Tommy, violent sociopath, Ulster Lothario and Reader’s Digest subscriber.
The third and final approach would be to try and describe a single episode that’s representative of the whole. Sammy and the boys are given some marijuana. A first-time smoker, he starts hallucinating in the outside toilet at his ma’s house (this is before he accidentally blows it up). He sees girls skating on the ice rink at the Rockefeller Centre in New York. He falls to the ground thinking he might freeze to death. Shortly afterwards, the boys are told to kidnap the wife of the guy who owns the comic book shop (this is before they start running it themselves). He owes the IRA money. Sammy and Tommy get the wife (they both become ‘romantically involved’ with her) then head to the shop. Sammy sees a model of Doctor Who’s Tardis and this triggers a flashback of his recent trip in the toilet. He collapses again. The owner, who looks exactly like Tommy (they swap lives at some point), helps bring Sammy round and gets him some water. The three of them start talking about Tarzan comics. The owner gives the boys free copies of something called The Savage Sword of Conan. They leave without the money and without telling the owner his wife is sitting in some desolate house with a pillowcase over her head.
Need anything else be said? Surprisingly, yes. As with For the Good Times, the dialogue is closer to the ground than a dog’s nose and he still gets his ink from the gutters: a Keenan sentence that contains only one naughty word is a sentence on a diet. There’s little in the way of plot or time spent describing locations. The parts of the book based in something resembling reality read like a series of sketches being performed on a bare stage in an empty theatre. The characters and the idea that madness is the only organizing principle for a whole society are everything.
I realise I might’ve made this book sound like great fun, and I suppose it is. I might’ve also made it sound like I enjoyed it, and I suppose I did. Why, for instance, would you want to get a paper round when you could join the IRA? ‘Personally, I’ll take liberating a Libyan arms stash for a bunch of street-fighting nationalists over delivering The People’s Friend to your agoraphobic ma.’ That’s Sammy. Later, he remembers a trip to Cave Hill with his brother and Dad. Told to kneel and have a drink of water, the boys do as instructed. ‘We’re down there, cupping the water out this river, with our hands, drinking it and looking up at him, my father, and nodding and saying, it’s beautiful, Da, it’s the best water we’ve ever tasted, Da…Then we climbed further up and there was a dead dog, lying in the river.’ What’s that about? On one level, it’s simply a funny story. On another, it’s a critique of nationalist interpretations of history.
There are moments of genuine literary inspiration, black diamonds of profound insight almost overwhelming in their beauty. When Keenan writes about the nature of sacrifice and its relationship with the past and future the book assumes a stillness, like it’s holding its breath. Sammy recalls one conversation with Tommy: ‘There’s a way of telling the future through pain, he says to me. That’s the secret of the IRA, he says. And all the top brass is in on it. It’s suffering that causes the future, he says.’ Passages about the hunger strikes and prisoners offering up their bodies ‘to the miracle of the mass’ memorably combine of physical starkness and spirituality. ‘I’ve never known meaning like it,’ Sammy says, ‘and don’t expect to again until I take my place in the tombs of heaven, for nobody else to see, but the endless dead.’ A couple of quotes don’t capture it, not nearly. So why the need for all the good times? Just as Mary Poppins offered the spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down, and just as Public Enemy used Flavour Flav to soften Chuck D’s uncompromising lyrics, so Keenan has his IRA members running a comic book store, plus all the other stuff. The good times are a concession.
As a novel about the Troubles, For The Good Times lands somewhere behind the best work of Glenn Patterson and Cal by Bernard MacLaverty, which achieved a more powerful effect with much less fuss. It will still be anointed a modern classic by those who take violence, swearing and ‘scenes of a sexual nature’ to be signs of authenticity and quality. Remember: Irvine Welsh returns occasionally to roam this land as a literary superstar. Others will think there’s so much going on, so much bewildering movement, that it must be a work of genius. But hardly. It is the product of a devilish imagination and it has undeniable moments of greatness, but these are fleeting, frustratingly so. They come only when the flash is abandoned in favour of a philosophical seriousness markedly different in tone from most of the book. That is, when we’re reminded there’s more to life than the good times.