Sunday, August 8, 2010

O'Hanlon's Irish Antibildungsroman

Ardal O'Hanlon's 1998 novel Knick Knack Paddy Whack (the American title of his novel; the original title is The Talk of the Town, which was thought to have too many resonances, I'm guessing, with The New Yorker magazine for yanks), is that very rare book that didn't have to make it through my Stack. I was on vacation in Elk Rapids, Michigan, and finished the books I'd brought along when I spotted it at a book sale in the very beautiful little public library in that very beautiful little town.

O'Hanlon is a stand-up comedian and a television actor who is best known for his role as Father Dougal McGuire in the situation comedy Father Ted (I've never seen it). There are the usual glowing blurbs on the jacket but the book appears to be very little-known. It is written well enough (it's good but not great), but I think it is too squarely in the same ecological niche as too many other contemporary Irish novels to stand out. Of course that's what makes it interesting to the aficianado.

That niche is the Irish antibildungsroman. Boy meets girl, boy gets drunk and falls down, boy alienates/batters/loses/murders girl. There are violent political undertones, grinding poverty, kamikazee alcoholism, small-town gossip that ruins lives, and a titanic psychological war with Catholicism. The Irish, damaged beyond repair by the English, are now their own worst enemies.

All of these elements are present here. The protagonist Patrick Scully is in his late teens and experiencing that most painful phase when the lucky ones go to college and other worlds and in the process turn away from their old mates, now revealed as losers. Things are bad for him but not as bad as he thinks; his own hopelessness is what knocks him down. Maybe: the ultimate facts are kept ambiguous, to good effect. What is clear is that Patrick has lots of talent but through a combination of bad luck and his own internalized crookedness he is doomed. He compares unfavorably to his father, his brother, and his best friend, and in the claustrophobic world of small-town Ireland that is poison for an ambitious young man.

The book got me thinking about the antibildungsroman and how many of these books I've posted about here. O'Hanlon had a role in a movie production of Patrick McCabe's The Butcher Boy (1992), and although this is just speculation on my part I wouldn't be surprised to learn that he had thought of the book (his first and only, so far as I know) as a result of that experience. The basic trajectory is very similar. It also brings to mind Eamonn Sweeney's underrated Waiting for the Healer (1997) and is, in both its ideology and plotting, similar to Dermot Bolger's The Journey Home (1990). Sean O'Reilly's The Swing of Things (2005) tackles similar issues. Ken Bruen's 2004 The Guards is in some ways most similar of all as both writers are eager to share their impressions of popular Irish youth culture.

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