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OK, Let’s Do Your Stupid Idea: hilarity, pathos and midlife crisis

Irish Times writer Patrick Freyne consoles and entertains but his essays work best when the stakes are low

OK, Let’s Do Your Stupid Idea
OK, Let’s Do Your Stupid Idea
Author: Patrick Freyne
ISBN-13: 9781844884889
Publisher: Penguin Sandycove
Guideline Price: €12.99

Patrick Freyne’s episodic memoir, OK Let’s Do Your Stupid Idea, begins with a conversation with his friend Corncrake, who says: “If I was going to read about someone’s life, it would be someone like Julius Caesar, or Napoleon, or some famous general.” If you are of Corncrake’s mind, this is not the book for you; Freyne is experimenting with the writing of ordinary life.

The difficulty is that ordinary life is shapeless, and most of the “whole genre of work” with which Freyne defends himself recounts a life change: Amy Liptrot’s recovery from alcoholism in The Outrun, Sinéad Gleeson’s negotiations with frailty and medicine in Constellations, Ian Maleney’s loss of and return to rootedness in Minor Monuments; in each case there is a story with, approximately, a beginning, a middle and an end.

Freyne’s essays are not exactly a story but the recounting of his life in a series of vignettes. He writes from midlife, and though several potential plotlines are implied (the untimely loss of a close friend, involuntary childlessness), none is allowed to structure the book. That’s the decision of a literary realist – even the most dramatic events in our lives rarely define us for ever more – but a challenge to both reader and writer.

Rueful self-deprecation

The first essay, a meditation on growing up as the arty son of the commanding officer of a “crack commando squad”, veers between hilarity and pathos. Why, Freyne wonders, did his father carry a walkie-talkie on a father-son weekend camping trip? “To keep in touch with the other men,” his dad explains, because actually the trip was cover for a counter-terrorism operation. The piece is a love letter to his father, whose “blend of maternal softness in the house and military hardness outside it was a pretty complex model of masculinity by the standards of the time”.


This is the closest we come to explicit discussion of the central themes of patriarchy and masculinity, which are rather addressed indirectly in a tone of rueful self-deprecation which is often very funny. The essay sets the standard for leaving the real thing unsaid, sometimes a delicate and moving effect and sometimes a failure to follow through.

We move on to Freyne’s childhood and teenage misadventures as a “member of a well-established nerd herd” and the songwriter for a school band who “would deliberately learn complicated guitar chords just so . . . I could watch my friends struggle to play them”. The next confession involves gobbling stolen communion wafers in the school stairwell.

There are deaths in the family, grief for lost children repressed through decades in which women’s feelings were unspeakable in rural Ireland, the sorrow and anxiety of a hereditary form of leukaemia, and then we’re on to a picaresque summer with friends in Germany in 1995, followed by running a pirate radio station with an anarchist collective, and then playing in a band with the same friends, D and Paul, and then at the end of the chapter Paul dies suddenly.

“That’s a bigger tragedy than can be contained in a story about a minor Dublin indie band. That’s a bigger story than I can tell, to be honest with you.”

Subtle vs infuriating

The book stands or falls by the reader’s reaction to these moments, these either subtle or infuriating moments in which Freyne walks up to the real story and then looks you in the eye and walks away. If it’s a bigger story than you can tell, maybe don’t tell it; or maybe the sudden death of the young is always a bigger story than we can tell in which case it’s realism rather than bottling it not to try.

The essays are best when the stakes are low: there’s a beautiful reflection on working as a carer, a much kinder version than Knausgaard’s account of taking a similar job at a similar age: “If you did your job badly, people suffered. If you did your job well, someone might have a good day.” The essay on singing in midlife, not as part of a band but as part of a community and a couple, haunted me for days and not just because now we don’t know when we’ll be allowed to sing together again: “It’s all folk music. We’re all folk.”

Freyne claims, “I’m an undercover show-off” but, obviously, in publishing this pronouncement he blows his cover (I am reminded of signs in English cities saying “covert surveillance in progress”). When the stakes are high, own it, I think, or don’t do it; as a writer friend once said to me, non-fiction is a contact sport, people get hurt.

No one gets hurt here, not even by the Army, but you finish the book consoled if not quite satisfied.

Sarah Moss is assistant professor of creative writing at UCD. Her latest novel is Summerwater

Sarah Moss

Sarah Moss

Sarah Moss, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a novelist and academic