Ireland’s Favourite Failure

Review: An engaging manifesto for underachievers

Stand-up writer: Karl MacDermott

Stand-up writer: Karl MacDermott

Sat, Aug 2, 2014, 01:00


Book Title:
Ireland’s Favourite Failure


Karl MacDermott

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A grown man dons shorts and a stripy T-shirt and, bearing a bright orange football, calls to the house of a former childhood friend. A frail version of his one-time pal’s mother answers the door, at first not recognising the fortysomething.

“Is Dermot there?”

“No, Lar love. He’s in Botswana. He’s an engineer.”

The tragicomic and wistful gags of Ireland’s Favourite Failure are typified by this incident, including the feeling of being left far behind by dispersed peers. Karl MacDermott’s Galwegian hero, Lar Gibbons, will chime with anyone born in the 1960s, as will his yearly World Going Back in Time Day. Events such as raiding an orchard are nods to innocent thrill as much as flights of fancy from adult chains.

In more than 30 episodes, allegedly written for a defunct western-seaboard literary journal, MacDermott hops around a life’s moments: losing jobs, seeking jobs; losing women, seeking women; imagining artistic endeavours, failing to accomplish them; emigrating to London, coming home. The Salthill setting is one of many elements that suggest this Galway-incubated comedian and writer is rather familiar with the ways of his fictional character.

These pages brim with nostalgia – for analogue simplicity, for irresponsibility, for the crazy prison of the child. They are laced with the begrudgery and self-loathing that once permeated Ireland, offering a healthy dose of pre-Tiger Ireland where many felt they had to apologise for being Irish. Lar’s contempt for the nation – television presenters, show business, weather – is inherited. He and his father are happy only when they are giving out stink.

MacDermott is an amusing and tight writer; his set-piece vignettes weave small everyday adventures. Whimsy, satire and farce – and a flavour of Richmal Crompton – are all found in the silliness of situations.

In one scene Lar spots an attractive woman entering a building. He peers through a window to see her stand up and announce, “My name is Siobhán and I’m an alcoholic.” Lar determines to join this AA group to meet her. But he does not drink, so he must first set about becoming an alcoholic. This engenders the task of acquiring drinking companions. And so the episodes roll, playing with slapstick, mishap and the humour of coincidence.

Standup comedy, of which MacDermott is a pioneering past master, is briefly explored in all its promise and terror. A spirited defence of why there is no point in going out is neatly presented. A date means Lar is reluctantly all set to go out for the evening. But then she cancels, and he is even more delighted with a “surprise night in”.

Someone once posited a definition of the novel as a long piece of prose with something wrong with it. For MacDermott’s book that flaw may be its lack of murder, mystery or cunning plot. But, if a novel is really about men, morals and society, Ireland’s Favourite Failure is an engaging manifesto for underachievers, slackers and people who think themselves out of it.

There is a real danger its author has punctured his own philosophy: this book is an engrossing and amusing achievement.