There’s one group of people in Ireland for whom the financial crisis has proved a godsend: writers. Journalists and commentators have created an industry of why-it-happened, whose-fault- was-it and where-do-we-go-from-here books, while novelists have been scribbling away in an attempt to explain our national disaster through fiction.
The crash has become prime fodder for our nation’s great satirist, Paul Howard, aka Ross O’Carroll-Kelly, who found a new lease of life for his novels in the splendidly titled Nama Mia! and The Shelbourne Ultimatum, as well as the very funny play Between Foxrock and a Hard Place, and now, once again, in the 13th book in his unstoppable series, Downturn Abbey.
A case could be made that by reading the Ross novels from their first appearance, in 2000, until this most recent volume, one can follow a story of arrogance, lust, greed, fear, loss and poverty that defines the Irish century so far. Ross’s narrative is the Irish narrative, and, poised for greatness but somehow coming up short, he personifies the nation. Hearing the infamous Anglo tapes on the radio recently, and the voices of those charmless men speaking like small-town versions of Gordon Gekko, it was hard to believe that adults so lacking in self-awareness could exist. They didn’t sound like sentient members of a profession who theoretically should have some degree of intelligence; they sounded like characters out of a Ross O’Carroll-Kelly novel. Just without the laughs.
Anyone who has been reading these books since Ross was a schoolboy will instantly feel 100 with the revelation in the opening chapter that the underage shenanigans of his 14-year-old son, Ronan, mean Ross is due to become a grandfather.
As the parents of the young lovers try to find some middle ground in their mutual desire both to blame the other’s offspring and claim ownership of the sprog, Ross’s wife, Sorcha, suggests that the teenagers move in with them in their “amazing, amazing house on the Vico Road”, a suggestion that goes down “like Josef Fritzl at a family reunion”, for the downturn has had an upturn and Sorcha is finally back where she belongs, with a view of Killiney beach.
There’s more bad news for the Rosser, however, on the family front. Honor, his daughter, is dropped from a film adaptation of one of his mother’s novels – “for the Hallmork channel” – news that Fionnuala is nervous of imparting over dessert, as she doesn’t want it to spoil the fig tarte tatin with shaved manchego.
His parents’ divorce comes through and the paterfamilias, Charles, announces that he intends to propose to his girlfriend, a moment that allows his ex-wife to speculate that she too might meet someone new. “It won’t happen,” Ross tells her, charm personified, in one of the book’s best lines. “Look in the mirror. You’re bet-down.”
It’s the aggressive relationship between mother and son that provides one of the most unexpectedly moving scenes in the novel. Fionnuala, of course, is a hugely successful novelist, and to promote her latest masterpiece, Fifty Greys in Shades, she appears on Miriam Meets with son Ross in tow. (The novel, which tells the story of “an active retirement group from south Dublin who go to Puerto Banús one summer and find themselves possessed by a renewed sexual vigour” actually sounds a lot more interesting than the trilogy whose name has been appropriated for the title.)
Ross gets his jollies by making as many cracks about his gin-addled mother as he can, hoping that they won’t get edited out before the show airs, but when Fionnuala denies that her son is her top achievement Ross feels “suddenly hurt by that. It’s like I’ve been kicked in the stomach.” And when she goes on to admit that the lack of warmth or affection between them was down to her, it’s a genuinely moving moment and all the more surprising for the fact that there’s no hint of sentimentality or a punchline.
Much of the novel is in fact taken up with questionings of parenting. For all their faults, Ross’s relationship with Charles and Fionnuala remains one of the great mainstays of the novels, and his often bizarre friendship with Ronan (“Alreet Rosser?”) masks deep affection and respect.
It’s Honor’s turn, however, to come a cropper, being expelled from school and causing her parents to reassess their own failings. “If you bungle raising your children,” Sorcha misquotes Jackie Kennedy, “then whatever else you do in your life doesn’t matter very much at all.” They worry about what school would accept their daughter when nobody who, “after spending, like, five minutes in our daughter’s company is going to think that she has anything to offer a student body other than nastiness and hurt”.
Their inability to communicate with their child or cause her a moment’s discomfort when they take away her phone, computer and television – and, worst of all, declare that they are going to send her to “a non-fee-paying national school” – is somewhat chilling and probably an all too familiar scene for parents today.
The great philosophical debates that mark a Ross novel arise whenever our hero is with his friends – is a threesome really a threesome if it involves two men and not two women? – and when one of that number, Oisinn, begins a relationship with Fionnuala, 30 years his senior (at least), it’s almost more than our hero can bear, particularly when she wastes no time in telling the newspapers about their sex life. (“It’s very, very much physical.”)
The Ross novels show no signs of running out of steam and are already the most sustained feat of comic writing in Irish literature. But they’re not there to be analysed to death: they’re there to be enjoyed, to poke fun at a country while clearly loving every flaw, contradiction and embarrassing detail that defines it. And if, at some point in the future, some master’s student decides to write a thesis on Irish satire from Jonathan Swift to Paul Howard, then it will probably backfire, for, as Ross himself says, “I haven’t a focking clue who Jonathan Swift is.”
Downturn Abbey, by Ross O’Carroll-Kelly, Penguin Ireland, 406pp, €20.50
John Boyne’s latest novel is Stay Where You Are and Then Leave.