It’s no easy task to write about a generation different from one’s own. A young novelist writing about the elderly can come across as patronising; an older novelist writing about the young risks appearing inauthentic. Interests change, the way twentysomethings interact and manage their social and sexual lives transforms as decade follows decade.
Brian Lynch, who published his first book in 1967 and who has worked as a novelist, poet, playwright and screenwriter, takes on a great challenge in writing about a young man blossoming in the Dublin music scene while negotiating his way through the demands of a public growing interested in his work, a media ready to embrace it and a personality capable of destroying it. But where would fiction be without a little fearlessness to anchor it?
Will Ferris, the novel’s protagonist, is introduced as a contemplative and intense presence, a musician with the self-destructive impulse of artists everywhere, for “though he had been for a long time convinced that he was gifted, a genius even, the suspicion that he was also a fraud stayed with him”. We meet him playing gigs in Dublin, reconnecting with old friends and slipping into a one-night stand with the aggressive Maeve, whose insecurities lend her a brittle edge.
Much of the early action is concerned with the relationships between young men, their competitiveness, sexual rivalry and inability to understand women leaving them frequently on edge.
A scene involving the drunken hit-and- run of a sheep, followed by the sheep’s skinning, slaughtering and eating, is played for laughs but reveals vulnerability in the aftermath. Another featuring Will being carried into the hold of a SeaCat boat by four sailors is very funny, but incarceration, even for 90 minutes, leaves him suddenly aggressive and ready for violence.
The female characters are less well drawn, occasionally conforming to the stereotype of career-obsessed shrews or man-eating sluts, reflecting a man’s ambition while having little of their own. Similarly, the gay character, Harry, is an uncomfortable presence, a throwback to a 1970s sitcom instead of a 21st-century man, secure and unapologetic about his sexuality.
“I’m not the first little boy who was groomed by a pervert and liked it,” he tells his friends. “It really was great gas, camping around in the presbytery dressed up in his vestments and drinking vodkatinis.”
Leaving aside the tedious cliches of homosexuality, it is difficult to imagine someone with Harry’s experiences speaking like that.
The intricate relationships between these young men and women – who's sleeping with whom, who's cheating on whom – result in the emotions that fuel Will's songs. At times, though, the narrative feels like an endless series of encounters, each more grim and loveless than the last, with a lot of tortured romanticism on the part of the participants. The episodic nature feels more suited to television drama, and indeed the novel owes a debt in that direction, with scenes of high drama balanced precariously next to broad comedy. The whole thing reaches a climax of such gruesome violence that when a body and its head are separated by a butcher's cleaver there's more than a touch of Love/Hate about it.
The most interesting moments concern Will’s growing profile as a musician and the way success comes to him. He gives a public performance that catches the attention of a newspaper columnist, leading to increased media attention.
The struggle between creativity, personal ambition and worldly success is examined, but it’s Will’s struggle with his lack of self-belief that rings truest. Excerpts from his poems and song lyrics are scattered throughout, and he is aware that while many of his lines sound wonderful, they are, like so much self-consciously literary songwriting, essentially meaningless. (“What was the Shade and why had he capitalised it? And though it rhymed with face, what was a trace effect?”)
The true nature of his artistry is ambiguous, for although Will recognises his flaws he is content to leave much of his pretension intact. But then this is a man who sleeps with his girlfriend’s flatmate and apologises through the medium of a poem. Sent from France. You can’t be much more affected than that.
There are moments when some judicious cuts might have been helpful. In a sequence leading up to Will's appearance on The Late Late Show unnecessary tributes are paid to RTÉ presenters. Calling the chatshow the most popular TV programme in the country is redundant, as is placing brackets after the name Paul McGuinness to inform us that he is the manager of U2. We know. Similarly, picturing Pat Kenny driving home after the broadcast "alone again, naturally" serves no purpose other than to introduce an unnecessary appraisal of the work of Gilbert O'Sullivan.
It can be almost impossible for any novel to get attention these days, and one such as this, published under the author’s own imprint, is likely to fly under the radar. For all the novel’s flaws, Will remains an original and complex character, and there are some genuinely moving and shocking moments towards the end when his story is resolved in an unexpected way.
As a study of the artistic impulse, real or imagined, and the destructive nature of youthful relationships, it offers moments of insight, but one is left with the frustrating feeling that had the writer been shrewder in his editing, the finished work would have proved a lot more powerful.
John Boyne’s most recent novel is Stay Where You Are and Then Leave.