A Ton of Malice review – dark, funny, gritty trip of a story that tells it like it was
Barry McKinley’s punchy tale of an ‘Irish punk in London’ beguiles, amuses and unsettles
Barry McKinley’s dialogue is wonderful and will stir wince-making memories in any Irish Londoner of the era
A Ton of Malice: The Half-life of an Irish Punk in London
‘Bumpkin Migrates to Overseas Metropolis” has been a blueprint much thumbed by generations of Irish writers (this reviewer included). It is possible to read Barry McKinley’s A Ton of Malice as an exquisitely dissatisfied cover version, a commentary on hand-me-down images.
Among the cobwebbed hoary familiars making an appearance early in this book set in 1979 are the funeral, the ferry and the Kilburn dancehall, the grotty digs, the pugnacious drunkards and the moody young dude. Our old friend, “The Girl I Left Behind”, is also on the premises; any piece of Irish emigration literature that didn’t field her would be like a football team with no goalkeeper. But McKinley, a huge talent, makes of these off-the-peg inheritances a powerful, original work that beguiles, amuses and unsettles. “Anger is an energy,” as a certain young Anglo-Irish writer once put it. And there’s plenty of rocket fuel here.
We meet our narrator, Jack, in an Irish town, stoned out of his bonce while helping to carry his mother’s coffin. Soon he’s off to that long-time capital of Irish fiction, Holyhead, where he encounters the north Wales police, “all cheap suits and droopy moustaches”. Jack is a handsome pup with serious drug issues and an uncontrollable temper, bound for a job at the headquarters of Sellafield. (At one point the book was entitled Meltdown Expected. )
Featuring a cover that looks as though it was designed by a teenage nihilist with the sole purpose of upsetting Mum (leering, Mohican-sporting skeleton), A Ton of Malice might be seen as occupying similar territory to the vivid writing of Greg Baxter, Sean O’Reilly or Lisa McInerney. There is zest and punchiness in McKinley’s slinky prose. “I met her at an Up With People gathering,” he remarks of a former girlfriend, “which was ironic because I didn’t give a f**k about people whether they were up or down.”
And there’s music in the sentences, a gruff, down-at-heel, Tom Waitsy lyricism, counterpointed with staccato machine-gun bursts of inchoate rage. Occasionally the voice allows itself to flare into sunbursts of beauty. This is not a love song. (Our Anglo-Irish writer butting in again!) But its evocation of the city where so many of us encountered that strange new taste called freedom is the work of a lover nonetheless. Paris also features, as does “Rainy Town” back in Ireland. But London is the ragamuffin heroine.
The narrator’s eventual host, Uncle Joe, a man who informs people that he moved to London “around the same time as The Beatles”, is so achingly recognisable that he embarrassed me. The two eat “side by side, sitting on his bed, watching natural disasters unfold on the BBC”.
Zingy one-liners are thrown around with likable prodigality: “You’ll have all the time in the world to sleep when you’re 30”; “I don’t hurt people but I’m hard on fixtures and fittings”; “When Jesus was handing out the crazy, I joined the line more than once.”
Unflaggingly negative and on the verge of emotional Vesuvius, Jack is known as “The Grump” by his girlfriend. But you stay interested because he seems real. I’ve met this Irishman. So have you. And I’ve often wondered what it must be like to live in that weird place, his head. This book tells you.
Readers of a certain vintage will recognise McKinley’s late 1970s urban England with its druggy all-night sessions, its air of shagged-out desuetude and its Provo supporters collecting “for the widows and children” in ghastly pubs. His dialogue is wonderful and will stir wince-making memories in any Irish Londoner of the era. Our hero’s employer remarks, “I’ve never been to Ireland. A lot of British people are put off. The political thing, you know. Things are difficult.”
Caveats? One or two. It’s a bit loose here and there in its use of first person plural, leading to funny but unearned generalisations: “When it comes to matters of the heart, the Irish usually express their feelings through violence. If we fancy you, we break a chair. Totally smitten? We throw a car battery off an overpass into speeding traffic.” Personally, back in my wooing days, I felt that my shy glance and sensitive sonnets were what was working the auld magic but I now realise that Herself was only indulging me.
The fabulous, if credibility-stretching Chapter 7 (motorbike and piano set alight, Union Jack used as a fire blanket) may have worked better as a standalone when it appeared, entitled “The Boy”, in the most recent edition of The Ogham Stone literary magazine. And pedants will raise eyebrows at the narrator’s assertion, in early 1979, that “punk music is dead”. The year of The Clash’s London Calling? The year before The Dead Kennedys’ Holiday in Cambodia?
This book won’t be everyone’s bucket of arsenic. But if your thing is a dark, funny, gritty trip of a story that tells it like it is, or, certainly, like it was, you might find A Ton of Malice deliciously malicious and, in a certain sense, even beautiful. Not that you’d be the type to say it. But get over yourself, Hardchaw, and head down to the bookshop. A Ton of Malice is a ton of fun.
Joseph O’Connor is McCourt Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Limerick. His most recent novel is The Thrill of It All. He directs the UL Creative Writing Summer School at Glucksman House, New York University, from June 22nd to 25th. Details from ULNY@ul.ie