The sectarian world of 1980s Belfast is not, you’d imagine, the easiest place for a young boy to figure out his sexuality. It’s an environment where being different has dangerous, sometimes deadly, consequences. The notion of the “other” as a threat or an evil is ingrained both in the political sphere and behind closed doors. From childhood, the lines are marked out: where to play and who to talk to.
In The Good Son, the children of the working-class Catholic district of Ardoyne use an old egg factory as an urban playground, but they know not to stray near "the Bray or the old Bone hills cuz that leads to Proddy Oldpark".
For Mickey Donnelly, the book’s engaging child narrator, even playgrounds within his own neighbourhood are threatening landscapes. Shunned by the local boys for his effeminate voice and interest in drama and musicals, Mickey cuts a lonely figure as the book begins, with baby sister Wee Maggie his only friend. Set over the course of the summer before he starts secondary school, Mickey’s coming of age is a struggle as all around mock him for his differences or expect him to snap out of them.
The Belfast author Paul McVeigh brings this plight to life in a spirited debut novel that at times, so loaded with action, veers off course and confuses, but ultimately delivers a real sense of a broken family living in a broken society. The author has previously written plays performed at the Edinburgh Festival and in the West End. Director of the London Short Stories Festival, McVeigh's own stories have been anthologised, published in The Stinging Fly and commissioned by BBC Radio 4.
Mickey’s first disappointment comes when his place at a good secondary school is lost after his father drinks away the family’s pittance. Mickey, the titular son, doesn’t kick up a fuss for fear of adding to his mother’s burden. His longing for her approval is well drawn and affecting: “She smiles her Ma smile, the one you try hard for.”
Although smarter than his peers, Mickey must now attend St Gabriel’s with the rest of the local boys, who vow to torment him once school begins. “Nine weeks til St Gabriel’s.” The last line in the first chapter is updated at various junctures throughout the book as the summer passes. It gives the novel a tight structure, a countdown timer ticking on affairs.
Bombs are ticking in the adult world, too. There’s the drunken and abusive Mr Donnelly, Mickey’s older brother Paddy and his covert criminal activities, various “uncles” with republican ties who come to the house in need of shelter, and a gun hidden in the dog kennel. There are literal bombs too, which Mickey and his beloved dog Killer wander into in one of the book’s most poignant sequences.
Mickey’s voice is frantic and overly familiar at the beginning, but he quickly wins the reader’s affections with his humorous, wise-guy antics that see him both comment on and ape the adult world around him.
In this, the voice resembles Francie Brady of The Butcher Boy, with later scenes of full-on fantasy and superhero delusions also recalling Pat McCabe's troubled child hero. Mickey's story is more grounded in reality, although he still dreams big. He wants to go to America, to meet famous actors from TV, "the only place I see people like me".
The question of Mickey’s sexuality is at the centre of the story, with the local children, including his dullard brother Paddy, plaguing him throughout the book: “Why do sound like a girl, anyway?” Or that old staple of bullies: “What’s wrong with you?”
Although Mickey thinks himself in love with the neighbourhood beauty, Martine, when he gets his chance with her, the physical attraction is missing. It is a convincing scene, with Martine herself turning out to be far from the princess he imagined.
Nowhere near as bad as Briege McAnally, however, an alarmingly real little vixen who sets her sights on destroying Mickey. McVeigh cleverly uses the storyline to convey the wider political situation.
Briege’s father is in prison as part of the republican cause. The McAnally women, backed by the IRA, intend to scare Mickey after he shoots his mouth off while out playing.
“Loose talk costs lives” is the chilling refrain throughout the novel. With his straight-talking child narrator, McVeigh vividly depicts the landscape, a kind of bandit country where local laws reign: “He can’t be a burglar cuz we don’t have them in Ardoyne cuz the IRA knee-caps them.”
In such landscapes, chances for heroism or escape are limited. As the plot hurtles towards an ending that seems to stretch credibility, the author pulls it back and allows Mickey to save, if not the world as in his superhero delusions, then at least the people he cares for most.