The Big Bust, Big House and Bills
FICTION:Claire Kilroy’s broadly comic tone will add to her new novel’s appeal but her Big House and gothic motifs blur the focus
The Devil I Know By Claire Kilroy Faber and Faber, 361pp. £12.99
IS CLAIRE KILROY’S new novel the Big Bust book we’ve all been waiting for? It certainly sets out to be, and in many ways succeeds. It’s all there: the builder turned maniacal property developer, the solicitor racking up seven-figure fees at tribunals, the minister as bag man, the dapper and deluded banker with white curls, the business-casual uniform of no socks and expensive slip-ons, the accessory wives of varying orange hues, even the wretchedly indulged children. And because this is Ireland, it’s a tragicomedy complete with literary epigraphs and allusions. To put it in the riddle form favoured by Larney, the devilish servant of the piece: “What starts with Joyce and ends like Beckett?”
The protagonist and narrator of The Devil I Know is Tristram St Lawrence, 13th Earl of Howth. In his educated but clueless state, Tristram owes more than a little, including his register, to Charles Hythloday in his parallel Killiney keep in Paul Murray’s An Evening of Long Goodbyes. There is a Faustian element to Tristram’s dilemma though. Due to the death of a dubious namesake, our hero had long since been written off by all in Howth. He has peculiarly cold hands, noted regularly during all the hearty handshaking going on as deal after deal closes. St Lawrence also boasts something of an ability to speak in tongues which others find “uncanny” – a word used throughout.
Tristram’s main excuse for being behind the curve is that he has been in an alcoholic haze for years, saved only recently by the intervention of the mysterious, non-corporeal Monsieur Deauville, who functions at first as Tristram’s AA sponsor by mobile. (The book opens with a paean to the pint that is worthy of Flann O’Brien at his best.) Deauville soon emerges as the crucial link to the Bills (aka the Billionaires), but in the end he is so much more.
The Devil I Know uses real references to lend credibility and verisimilitude: the Golden Circle; a former taoiseach who suggested non-believers do away with themselves; and a great deal of building and financial detail (what happens to sewerage pipes not properly encased before road surfaces are laid, the fallout from self-certification of safety standards, and a primer on buying property with debt). The novel is cast in the form of a tribunal-like interrogation set in 2016, just as the preparations for the Easter Rising centenary are going into full gear. Kilroy is not averse to taking risks, but the decision to place each question posed in the courtroom, and some of St Lawrence’s pithier responses, on otherwise blank pages, wears a bit thin:
“Mr St Lawrence, what is the nature of your relationship with the financier Mr Deauville?”
“Ha! What a question!”
The Devil I Know uses the underlying trope of addiction to explain, but not explain away, both individual and group excess. Dopamine and testosterone levels run high. Everyone drinks too much and all the time, cocaine is there to be had, no one can sleep – and why would you when global markets mean you can make money round the clock? Kilroy’s almost exclusively male cast is well-etched, and she has a dead eye for shrivelling detail and truth-telling. The knuckle-dragging builder Dessie Hickey spurts so much dark nasal and ear hair that he is “something hybrid, something wolfish, something that wore its pelt on the inside”.
The Viking, a local hotelier and player, ponders the genetic mystery of the recent influx of stunning Russian women who are without male equivalents. Although she can rely too heavily on similes that sometimes clang, Kilroy’s metaphors can be startlingly fresh and arresting, such as this description of the minister, Ray Lawless, accepting a payoff:
. . . Ray’s two shovel paws clamped the pack. He opened it up and stuck his nose inside, jigged the wads up and down
to give them a good toss, a man
distributing salt and vinegar through his bag of chips . . .
Unlike Ann Enright’s recent The Forgotten Waltz, which subordinated its wry humour to a sustained minor key, Kilroy opts for a more broadly comic note. The result will be even wider popular appeal, but her choice of an irrelevant member of the remnants of Anglo-Ireland as her narrator is one of the pieces within this fiction that seems a bad fit. Because he’s posh, many of those whom Tristram encounters think he is gay. The author, as though responding, gives him an underdeveloped love affair with Dessie the builder’s wife. Otherwise the romance is little explored and Edel Hickey remains not much more than the receding bow on her halter top as she wanders through the rhododendrons. And although we can certainly pin our current tragedy on Anglo Irish Bank, it is one for which the actual Anglo-Irish can’t be blamed.
By centring the story around the crumbling remains of Howth Castle and its wobbly aristocrats, Kilroy has married the book to the decadent Big House and gothic motifs familiar to all Irish readers, but has blurred her thematic focus in the process.
The Devil I Know is Kilroy’s fourth novel. Her first, All Summer, was published in 2003. It is worth remembering that writers of this generation benefited greatly during the boom years. Publishing opportunities mushroomed, and there were international book tours and prizes galore. Irish writers were hot, turning into media darlings overnight. Perhaps it’s only appropriate that they are now the ones to chronicle in fiction the contagion of folly that was the Celtic Tiger.
Christina Hunt Mahony teaches at the School of English in Trinity College Dublin, and is the author of Contemporary Irish Literature: Transforming Tradition (Macmillan) and editor of Out of Ireland: Essays on the Writings of Sebastian Barry (Carysfort)