The Blocks review: Psalms of degradation, psalms of exaltation
Karl Parkinson’s fiercely original debut justifies comparisons with Jack Kerouac
Karl Parkinson: his work is smelted from ore of an uncommon kind
New Binary Press
Karl Parkinson’s debut novel is a double rarity: first because the author was brought up in Dublin’s notorious corporation blocks, and second for its defiant visionary style.
Kenny Thomson, born and raised in the Blocks (Ballymun, later O’Devaney Gardens), tells his life story to the world, and does so in an unrelenting phonetic transcription of the inner-city dialect. This takes a risk: the Dublin accent in print is often a cue for laughter (as on overheardindublin.com) or can come across as condescending. It’s not the only risk Parkinson takes, and he makes them all pay off.
Kenny begins his story at the beginning, with his earliest memories as a toddler. He has a fiercely burning imagination which warps the narrative. His world contains visits to the granny and his da’s drug-taking, but also ‘glooptings’ and a talking bee. There’s nothing cutesy about this: these are rather demonic manifestations. We quickly intuit that in young Kenny’s mind the glooptings represent chaos, depression, abuse and all the evil influences of the Blocks.
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Hard on the heels of his first sexual experience comes a loss of innocence of a different nature: he becomes aware of exactly what it means to be from the Blocks. He becomes aware of the vast gulf separating life as he knows it from the aspirations presented by teachers. He sits burning with resentment at his school desk, aiming unvoiced thoughts at the career guidance teacher: “Sir, do ya know ya look like a cardboard cut-out uv a man, a drip-fed asshole?”; “Fuck all teachers, advisers, guides, rule makers.”
No safety nets
From then on a driving engine of the story is the battle to find a way out of the Blocks. For some of Kenny’s acquaintances that path leads through suicide, for a few it’s by moving out, but most of the time it involves drug-boosted hilarious escapades and bouts of euphoric camaraderie.
The inner-city accent rings out from every page, and tends to conceal the immense skill operating in the novel. Parkinson avails of the rhythm of song lyrics, the poetry of Blake and Rimbaud, the magic realism of Gabriel García Márquez, close-focus social realism, and not least the crackling buzz of the Dublin dialect itself. All of this is fired through with an Old Testament ferocity.
The general plot is a Portrait of the Artist-style account from childhood to early adulthood, from toddler with a wild imagination to the emerging artist/poet. There is a heightened sense of how much is at stake. When friends and relatives falter – turn to heroin or give in to depression – there are no safety nets. Kenny does not have a tragic mindset, but tragedy forms a constant background.
In a counterpoint to this child-to-adult progression, many sections have a thematic unity of their own: when Kenny writes about his friend Georgie, he condenses the tale right up to Georgie’s tragic death at the age of 22. The following sections resume the story at the age of 16. This all feels very natural and in accordance with how memory works. The titles of some sections announce their theme: Violence block, Drug bedroom block, Music block. The main narrative is interspersed with “Voices from the Blocks”. As Kenny matures, the scope of these voices expands to include the older generation: mothers having a cigarette break, an older criminal on release from Mountjoy who is hoping to go straight.
Singer of the human soul
‘Finely wrought’ is not the right phrase. Rather, it is smelted from ore of an uncommon kind; forged, hammered and delivered smoking to the world. The novel constantly astonishes and reinvigorates. For example, the dreamland spirits of the early sections disappear as Kenny grows up. But over a hundred pages later, at a moment when Kenny succumbs to atavistic urges for revenge, and beats a man half to death on the concrete stairway, these demons make a startling reappearance. “De gargoyles rose up and flapped der wings in delight, de roar echoed in de halls n me head n de glooptings drooled in de darkness”.
Forbears to this kind of writing are few and far between: the works of Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, James Kelman. The influence of William Blake’s prophetic visions runs deep through the novel. It’s worth noting that all of these writers have been criticised for being repetitive and for their idiosyncratic ramblings. Parkinson largely avoids this through the intermittent changes in perspectives, and also by those sections where the narrative breaks down and becomes something other: a psalm to sexuality, a jeremiad to a duo of joy riders, a runaway list of epithets.
Parkinson has set himself up unashamedly and without irony as a singer of the human soul in its contrary states of degradation and exaltation. It’s worth listening to him.
Aiden O’Reilly’s short fiction collection Greetings Hero is published by Honest Publishing