The Good Son is on Polari Prize shortlist. Judge Paul Burston explains why
The Good Son isn’t just a portrait of the outsider as a young Irishman. It’s also a testament to the strength of character required by gay children simply to survive
Paul Burston on Paul McVeigh’s The Good Son: Yeats characterised the Irish as having “an abiding sense of tragedy” which sustains them through “temporary periods of joy”. For our young protagonist, the opposite is true. Mickey never succumbs to self-pity – and when tragedy strikes, he bears it as bravely as any soldier might, sustained by his dreams of a better life”
There aren’t a great many sexually ambiguous, sassy, 10-year-old Irish narrators in literature. So thank heavens for Mickey Donnelly. From the moment we first meet him, we know that Mickey is a mammy’s boy. But there’s more to it than that. To his older brother Paddy, he’s a “wee gay boy” and “a fucking weirdo”. To the kids who play on the mean streets where he lives, he’s a “fruity boy” who acts “like a girl”. The boys bully him. The girls tease him. Even Mickey’s Aunt Kathleen worries about the way he behaves. “Do you think he’s...” she asks, before Mickey’s mother cuts her off. Not even a doting mammy wants to consider the possibility of her wee boy turning out like that.
The Good Son takes place over the course of the summer holidays, as Mickey waits to hear which secondary school he’ll attend – the posh St Malachy’s or the less desirable St Gabriel’s. But this is Belfast in the 1980s, at the height of the Troubles. Lives are hemmed in by sectarian violence. British soldiers raid people’s homes and are targeted by men in balaclavas. Warning signs remind us that careless talk costs lives. Mickey thinks his father may be in the IRA, that his heavy drinking is just a cover. He turns to his priest for guidance. Mickey knows he’s different. He knows that most boys his age don’t spend so much time playing with their kid sister. He knows the other children hate him. “It’s OK to be different,” his priest assures him. “It gets easier as you get older.”