It's good to know we can rely on Ross
FICTION:The Shelbourne Ultimatum, By Ross O’Carroll-Kelly Penguin, 414pp. £13.99
AT A TIME when most Irish institutions have fallen into disrepute, there’s something comforting about the yearly emergence of a new Ross O’Carroll-Kelly book. A bit of an institution now in his own right, O’Carroll-Kelly is one of a pantheon of anthropomorphic Irelands (others include Cuchulain, Kathleen Ní Houlihan, Dev and Marty Whelan). It’s hard to imagine the place without him, and I believe that, in years to come, heavily footnoted editions of Paul Howard’s long-running series will be the textbooks on early 21st-century Ireland.
In fact, I assume it will be annotated sooner rather than later. Howard does not steer clear of celebrities of the moment, brand names, street names or passing news stories. (Indeed, filtered through the affluenza-tinted eyes of Ross such minutiae often seem kind of exotic.) It won’t be long before readers will be wondering who Katie Holmes and Suri Cruise were, so I suspect the books will soon come with more footnotes than TS Eliot’s The Waste Land.
The Shelbourne Ultimatum is a lot funnier than The Waste Land, even though at the outset of this book, the 11th in the series, Ross moves through a bit of a wasteland himself. In a coma (he was shot in the stomach at the end of the last book) he dreams of moving through the streets of a Dublin blighted by phone shops and cash-for-gold outlets.
Before long, our clueless anti-hero is awake and bemoaning the state of his injured six-pack. He tries to sabotage the wedding of his best friend, Fionn, and his half-sister; he blackmails the woman who shot him; and he watches in horror as his estranged wife gets a job in a Euro Saver store. He also crosses the Liffey to go to a GAA match with his northsider son (they meet a lot of “cadickters”), watches his condemned boomtime apartment being demolished, and ends up being mistaken for a plumber by a cuckolded husband who then refers plumbing work to him throughout the book. Furthermore, his Lamborghini is repeatedly graffitied with obscenities, his six-year-old daughter is becoming a brattish child star and he bonds with his sociopathic, hither-to-now presumed-dead grandmother.
That’s an awful lot of plot, but there’s no better man than Ross to guide us through it, gormlessly riding the narrative tension from set piece to set piece. Luckily, being shot hasn’t triggered any earth-shattering self-reflection, and while Ross might be an unreliable person, he’s too blissfully self-confident to be an unreliable narrator. He recounts life warts and all, never thinking for once that it might reflect badly on him. His asides, casual thoughts and turns of phrase are still absurdly hilarious. (Are the jokes really that good? “Does Brent Pope shit in the woods?”, to quote Ross.)
Ross has not, as one character puts it, let failure go to his head and he is still unaccountably happy with himself and content to bask in his former rugby glory. “Ross O’Carroll-Kelly?” asks a voice over the telephone at one juncture. “The one and only accept no substitutes,” answers Ross, before proudly informing the readers: “Which is a thing I sometimes say.”
As usual, characters explode out of their accent-laden stereotypes to feel like surreally real human beings. Irish society is parsed and analysed along the way and genuine class war occasionally looms from beneath the surface. “People like us are never really skint. Not the way ordinary people are,” Ross says at one point, accurately reflecting the difference between poverty and “poverty”. Elsewhere, his “old dear” calls discount stores “the potato blight of the modern age”, while extracts from her recessionary misery memoir, Mom, They Said They’d Never Heard of Sundried Tomatoes, are sprinkled through the book like a play within a play.
This fictional piece of fiction is being adapted into a film featuring Ross’s daughter, and features increasingly hilarious depictions of middle-class Dubliners down on their luck (a Subway employee has never heard of “organic truffle butter”; a child must eat her pony). Indeed, so filled with postboom malaise is The Shelbourne Ultimatum that when his redundant friend Oisinn starts a business dismantling mouldy decking for property owners filled with buyer’s remorse, Ross worries that it’s a “metaphor” for “the Celtic Tiger”.
This latter joke is possibly directed at overzealous critics like myself eager to laud Howard as the preeminent satirist of our times. And okay, this book wouldn’t work so well if it wasn’t first and foremost a rollicking tale of a likeable, overprivileged buffoon who, at one point, has a poo in a laptop and likes nothing better than to have “a go” on a girl’s “top 10 hits” (this is rhyming slang). He has a go on a lot of them, actually, from those of his friend’s married sister, to those of his daughter’s long-suffering American PA, to those of his estranged wife’s sister, to those of a criminally minded Welsh woman with an ankle monitor. He even sexts a family member.
But the truth is that, much as Howard might cover the fact in lowbrow shenanigans, he actually is the preeminent satirist of the times. We regularly complain about how artists and writers and musicians don’t grapple with the big issues rocking the nation. Well, Howard has chosen to consistently grapple with the little issues (decking, discount stores, bank shares, downsizing, failing businesses, Katie Holmes) in a manner that says more about contemporary Ireland than a whole Aosdána’s-worth of state-of-the-nation authors. To borrow a great critic’s phrase about the rugby player Paul O’Connell: if you are what you eat then Paul Howard must have been eating a focking legend. (The great critic was Ross O’Carroll-Kelly.)
Patrick Freyne is a writer for The Irish Times