There’s life in the old Rosser yet: Keeping up with the Kalashnikovs
Review: The most effective chronicler of the frappuccino, cheese and vino years has done it again
Keeping Up With the Kalashnikovs
A year ago this reviewer was invited on to the wireless to chew over an Irish lit conversation-stopper: where are the home-grown writers with the wit to dissect the boom-and-bust years? Where are the Tom Wolfes and Martin Amises of south Dublin? An old saw, and one that has grown blunt over the years. Flannery O’Connor once said that a writer can choose what he wants to write about but cannot choose what he is able to make live. In the end our panel concluded that maybe the most effective chronicler of the frappuccino, cheese and vino years was not some superhip social realist but a working-class former journalist, Paul Howard, writing as an upper-middle-class grotesque, Ross O’Carroll-Kelly.
Irish dramatists and storytellers have always got great sport from the stage-Irish culchie bumpkin, the bog buffoon, the gombeen man. In domestic fiction, country cleverness usually translates as cute-hoorism. With the Rosser, Howard gave us a new breed of stooge: the Dort-line gobdaw with the gobstopper accent, double-barrelled name and rugger-bugger swagger. He even invented, or at least reproduced, a form of D4 vernacular that needed its own glossary.
Keeping Up With the Kalashnikovs is the 16th instalment in a cultural phenomenon that kicked off back in 1998, smack bang in the middle of new-money mania and the comedy boom, a time when Irish fiction was in a recessive period and every creative endeavour seemed measured by the tyranny of the gag. Now, 16 years later, nothing’s funny any more, and some might say we need the Rossmeister like Gotham needs Batman.
The plot of Keeping Up With the Kalashnikovs is cheerfully ludicrous: Ross’s old mucker Fionn, recently absconded to teach in Uganda after a failed relationship (said relationship having been torpedoed by the narrator, who has a habit of ruining his friends’ lives), is kidnapped by bandits and held to ransom.
Our hero, full of dunderhead bluster, advocates tooling up, flying out and doing a Liam Neeson. All fine and dandy, but Ross’s domestic situation has become impossibly complicated. His wife is pregnant with triplets, his teenage son, Ronan, and de facto daughter-in-law, Shadden, are living in-house with their infant (the brilliantly named Rihanna-Brogan), and his own daughter, Honor, having grown into a right little hellion, has adopted a pregnant rat. Trapped in this funhouse, Ross blunders from one Freudian slip and Fawlty Towers pratfall to the next.
Much of Ross O’Carroll-Kelly’s comedy value derives from the gulf between how we see him and how he sees himself, a characteristic that defines all great hero fools, from Ignatius J Reilly to Alan Partridge. We laugh at him, but this laughter is uneasy: we wonder how we’d stand up to the same scrutiny. Such queasy see-sawing between straight face and farce might be the main reason the book holds up for as long as it does without too much creaking.
Howard has to walk a fine line here. A great comic yarn – Puckoon, The Poor Mouth – usually works best over short distances, but a popular novel, the kind you pick up at an airport display or supermarket checkout, is expected to deliver heft as well as quality. It’s Howard’s craft that gets him through. Line by line he is an inventive, lively stylist, one whose grasp of the opposing rhythms of the northside and southside Dublin demotic is up there with Roddy Doyle’s.
Howard’s dialogue sings, and he never misses the chance to subvert standard English in service of a larf. In Ross’s parlance, cars are cors, guys are goys, body parts are body ports. Again and again the reader is compelled to wonder how the kind of airhead babble lampooned by Frank Zappa in Valley Girl 30 years ago came to be the official language of the Dundrum generation. Ross’s employment of the dreaded ascending line statement – whereby every other declaration is capped with a question mark, the legacy of too many hours watching Friends – and liberal pepperings of like would be intolerable in a so-called serious novel, but here, as send-up, it never gets old. Consider the following description of a hijacked freight vessel. “It’s not like the ships you see in – yeah, no – movies like Titanic and blah, blah, blah. It’s, like, square. Or oblong, I think is the actual shape? So it’s hord to know when you look at it which is the actual front and which is the actual back . . . And it’s focking humongous as well. As we get closer to it, it looms over us like, I don’t know, something.”
A warning to the tardy. Late arrivals to the series will find Ross’s tangled family tree and home life (compounded by a string of “heroic” infidelities) a bit of a Chinese puzzle. Despite this, Howard somehow makes us root for his creation as he lurches through 385 pages of cover-your-eyes slapstick towards a gonzo-improbable third act. There’s life in the old franchise yet.