It's good to know we can rely on Ross
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