‘Dublin in the 1970s was a long day’s journey into sh**e’
Douglas Kennedy’s time living in Ireland – where he managed the Peacock theatre and wrote for ‘The Irish Times’ – feeds into his new novel, a sprawling, almost 600-page epic
Douglas Kennedy: The Great Wide Open takes in the Nixon/Ford/Carter/Reagan years, with walk-on parts from Donald Trump and Brendan Kennelly
Douglas Kennedy chuckles when I say I never expected to read a novel which featured walk-on parts for both Donald Trump and Brendan Kennelly. The American novelist’s new, almost 600-page bildungsroman, The Great Wide Open, spanning the turbulent decade-and-a-half between 1970 and 1984, includes an extended sequence in the drab, dank Dublin of the early 1970s in which the poet and Trinity academic makes a brief appearance, as well as a portrait of New York in the Reagan years when Trump was the golden boy of the Manhattan real estate world.
More of the current president later, but first that affectionate but not entirely flattering depiction of life in and around Trinity College 45 years ago. The damp bedsits, the godawful food, the litter-strewn streets, the dereliction and the dark cloud of the Troubles hanging over everything. It all rings pretty true.
“I was never romantic about it,” Kennedy says of the time he spent here. “I think that comes across in the book. A lot of it was what I used to call a long day’s journey into shite.”
And yet, he says, Dublin was critical in his life. “In the seventies, and in the eighties as well, it was a completely non-materialistic place. I remember when I was working at the Peacock, I was taking home about £48 a week. A lot of people were raising a family on that. And in those days you could buy a house in the Liberties for £2,500.”
Like Alice, the narrator of his new novel, Kennedy came to Trinity in 1974 to study for a year. He returned here in 1977 and became immersed in the local literary world, setting up a small theatre company, then managing the Peacock theatre, as well as writing plays for radio and stage and features for this newspaper.
Was it an easier place to live a bohemian life than the US? “I think the word bohemian is so loaded now,” he says. “But Dublin was properly bohemian because it was poor and the living conditions weren’t easy. There was very little in the way of food or fashion – everything that now is the lingua franca of modern society. But it was still a city where you ran into Ben Kiely in pubs. Dublin was backward in some ways, and yet I discovered this other city which was very compelling and full of extremely smart people.”
He was a columnist with The Irish Times for several years until the paper’s new editor, Conor Brady, fired him. “It was one of the first things he did. He didn’t like what I was doing so he got rid of me. I took it on the chin. To his credit, around the time my third book was published I was in Dublin, and he said let’s have a drink and he apologised, which I thought was class. He said ‘we’d like you to come back and write occasionally’. So I did. But, as the saying goes, one door closes, another one opens,”
By that stage, he and his then wife, Grace, had moved to London. He published three travel books, along with journalism for GQ, Esquire and the British broadsheets. But his breakthrough came in the 1990s, with big, tightly plotted, highly readable novels such as The Big Picture and The Job topping international bestseller lists. His books have since sold more than 17 million copies worldwide.
Now a depressingly youthful-looking 64, a gazillion-selling novelist, a father of two adult children, with two marriages and two divorces safely behind him, he divides his time between London, Paris, Berlin, Montreal, Maine and New York, which sounds very agreeable, although not necessarily relaxing. He describes himself sardonically as “one of those writers who writes”. Another novel has been completed since this one, and his first book for children will be published later this year in France, where his fiction is particularly loved; he was awarded the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2007.
Although I was very much a part of the place, Ireland was never my argument. Any more than London, where I spent 25 years, was. America is my argument
Without giving too much away, the plot of The Great Wide Open pivots on a real act of political violence in Dublin at the height of the Troubles. “I went back and researched those incidents carefully,” says Kennedy. “I wanted that feeling that there was this menace nearby. And it was awful. It was part of the national consciousness that there was a war going on just 100 miles away.”
It’s not unusual for his books to feature, as this one does, an American adrift and vulnerable in a foreign country. It seems to be the default Kennedy perspective. “I have an Irish passport,” he says. “But I was always the insider outsider. Although I was very much a part of the place, Ireland was never my argument. Any more than London, where I spent 25 years, was. America is my argument.”
America is where most of The Great Wide Open is set, with detours to Chile and Ireland. Told in flashback from the vantage point of 1984, it tells the story of the fractious, dysfunctional Burns family through the eyes of their only daughter, Alice, as she makes her way through the successive dark absurdities of the Nixon/Ford/Carter/Reagan years. Like Kennedy, Alice Burns has an Irish-American father and a Jewish mother. Their marriage – like that of Kennedy’s parents – is bitter and unhappy. Alice’s father, like Kennedy’s, is a corporate executive who also works for the CIA, and who played a murky role in the American-backed violent overthrow of the democratically elected Allende government in Chile in the 1970s, and its replacement by the repressive military regime of Augusto Pinochet.
“My father is everywhere in this novel,” says Kennedy. “He was extremely thorny and complicated. I think about him every day.” The two had been estranged for years before his father’s death in 2014. “The night he died I got a text. I was in my pied à terre in New York. All I could do was sit down and write 2,000 words of the novel I was finishing. Then I filled a glass with rye and grabbed one of the cigars I occasionally smoked. I walked up to the public library and sat down on the steps and smoked the cigar and looked up at the sky and just thought, ‘Gosh, that story is over and I don’t have a father.’ It’s a huge moment when that happens. I’m pretty sure I started thinking about this book at that point.”
Would he have written this novel before his father’s death?
“Oh, I might have,” he says with a wicked chuckle, although he admits he’s rarely written autobiographical fiction, apart from one short story. As autobiographical portraits go, though, he paints a far from pretty picture of family life.
“But show me a family where there’s not a lot of internecine tension and people aren’t getting at each other all the time,” he responds. “My God, that’s the heart and soul of Irish literature. What a mess we make of it. How parents resent children and siblings resent each other.”
It was a fascinating period because the white male establishment was being challenged. And they got very scared
The reason his father joined the CIA had nothing to do with patriotism, he believes. “ I think it was more to get the hell out of Dodge and get away from the family. It was interesting. It was exciting. He wasn’t coming home to three boys and a manic-depressive wife. He could have adventures as a middle-aged man and he loved that. There was a mistress down there. There were a lot of mistresses but I knew there was one who was the daughter of someone in Pinochet’s cabinet.”
Alice Burns is exactly the same age as Douglas Kennedy. “What I was trying to do was chronologically follow my own life and also to look at how this one family is a reflection of something larger that was going on, the beginning of the culture wars in America and the divisions that we now live with in a terrible way. Everyone talks about this being a progressive time. It really wasn’t whatsoever. But it was a fascinating period because the white male establishment was being challenged. And they got very scared. The culture wars came out of that. And we elected Reagan in 1980 as essentially a retrograde president. Tragically, Reagan probably is the most important president in American life in the 20th century. He completely changed the trajectory of the country.”
He describes the contemporary US as a failed state. “Look where we are. Look who’s in charge. It’s extraordinary really.” So the shadow of Trump looms over the book? “Very much so. That was in the back of my mind as I started writing it in the election year. I started in January of ’16 and then finished it in March of ’17. Trump was in the White House and the country was so completely divided and so angry at each other. There are two Americas and we hate each other.”
All of this he traces back to the period when the novel opens. “The culture wars started in the early ’70s. It was Nixon who created this. It’s how he won the White House. This idea that there was a real America and that these people on the East and West coasts were not real Americans. That was the beginning of the cultural war which is being played out 50 years on. So the thought in my head was to show, just within this family, how the tectonic plates of American life moved us into this place we’re in now.”
The Great Wide Open is published by Hutchinson. A public interview with Douglas Kennedy will take place in Dublin City Library & Archive, Pearse Street, Dublin on Thursday, January 31st at 6.30pm. Booking essential via Eventbrite