"If our former notions of natural pride in our country had instead manifested themselves into a pride for economy we might not have collapsed the way we did." So says a sage-like character in Danny Denton's captivating debut novel, which imagines a grim dystopian Ireland that is all too believable. The Earlie King and the Kid in Yellow's "wayward myth", whose subtitle "fragments shored against the ruins" is the first of many Eliot references, presents its unreal city with splashes of reality that flood the narrative with reminders of Ireland's recent economic fall from grace.
Denton’s story of a plucky teenager who pits himself against a murderous leader and his tribe is set in a post-digital future where the rain hasn’t stopped for centuries, a world that is literally without sunlight. The subtext is clear from the outset: “A country that drenches itself in rain for hundreds of years is maybe trying to rebirth itself.”
The Cork author’s impulse to bear witness to the ruin and recovery comes through in the inventive form of his novel and its multiple narrative strains. The opening pages read like a circus poster, inviting the reader into the spectacle. The book’s first narrator is Ward, “a poor officer of the law”, who has vowed to commit all he has seen to record, “the word of the spark and annihilation”.
Each of the novel's chapters are headed "Bit from", one of many modernist techniques Denton employs. Interludes from the personified Mister Violence, scenes from a play, sketches of rain, the use of slashes for dialogue and a fictitious language that gets rid of personal pronouns combine to make a highly original novel that somehow manages to tell a traditional story amid all the bells and whistles. This is not Denton's first foray into modernism, having published an innovative short story in The Stinging Fly in 2015 that paid homage to The Waste Land.
The Cork author has been awarded several bursaries and scholarships for his work, and has also written for The Irish Times, Irish Examiner, and RTÉ's Arena. With the story of two star-crossed young lovers at its centre, his novel recalls Alan McMonagle's debut Ithaca, as both books explore individual hardships amid struggling communities. Other Irish contemporaries such as Lisa McInerney and Colin Barrett also come to mind in Denton's themes of violence and fear, though the prose is not as striking and indelible as Barrett's.
Eliot's influence looms large in The Earlie King, from unreal cities to Sweeney the drunken sage, "of mystical roots – of land and dreamings", to individual lines that show Denton's gift for imagery and allusion: "The sailors all roaring around him, /Water, water! Get your duds in order!" Another chapter begins, "Rain is the startling moment". Even the mythic verses that the kid sometimes spouts to himself and others show poetic flair: "To enter the ring with the storm, to grapple and clinch, To enter the jaws of the shipwreck and never flinch."
Indeed, our hero rarely flinches in his mission, despite many dangers. Possibly as young as 13 in Denton’s topsy-turvy world, the kid, whose name is hilariously revealed towards the end, has fallen in love with the Earlie King’s daughter, T. After she gets pregnant, gestates for 12 months and dies in an horrific labour, the kid vows take care of the “babba”. Meanwhile, the Earlie King – a clever mix of ancient brawn and futuristic violence – and his group of murderous Earlie Boys have claimed babba as their own and vow to kill the kid if he doesn’t flee.
The David versus Goliath storyline serves Denton well to showcase an Ireland in ruins as the kid outwits the King and takes babba on the run to "the tiny citadel of Dingel", where the Virgin Mary statue has appeared to a young girl to tell her when the rains will end. The text is peppered with these kind of witty allusions to real Ireland past and present: the vigilante Vincent Depaul, the pints of Guins, the Croke Park Flats, whose style "they called Brutalism". Ireland is a land where "only pharmaceuticals survived", with F, or Fadinhead, the drug of choice as "'F'heads squatted in every alley".
Denton’s unique world is lawless, a place where journalists and guards are equally ineffectual against the violence of the King. Society at large is also cowed by a Big Brotheresque state that gives everyone a “comm-code” and monitors behaviour through cameras and intercoms.
As the kid hooks up with a group of spiritualists en route to Dingel, takes part in a seance with his beloved T and tries to escape the clutches of baddie Bart, the plot, much like the country itself, reaches boiling point. Mashing ancient myth with a miserable future, Denton’s fierce and distinctive debut should set the books world alight.