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White City by Kevin Power: Savagely funny and absorbing new novel

Book review: Joshing cronyism, toxic privilege and a property deal gone wrong

White City
Author: Kevin Power
ISBN-13: 978-1471132780
Publisher: Scribner UK
Guideline Price: £14.99

Kevin Power’s Bad Day in Blackrock (2008) was one of the most memorable Irish novels of the new century. Tracking the blithe entitlement and terrifying moral blankness of well-got members of the Dublin southside upper middle class, the work deserved the many accolades it received. Power had the good fortune to have the novel adapted by one of the country’s most able film-makers, Lenny Abrahamson, and the result was the arresting What Richard Did (2012).

Thirteen years later, in White City Power returns to the world of joshing cronyism and toxic privilege that make bank bailouts, tracker mortgage fixes and share scams the inevitable collateral of a class consumed with obtuse self-interest.

Ben, whose father is to stand trial for financial malpractice, is taken aback at the dramatic change in the family's fortunes. As more and more family assets are seized, the indifferent PhD student and author of the unpublished novel Decay: A Report becomes dimly aware of the inconvenient necessity of working for a living. Meeting up with Clio, an actor, saves his soul (temporarily) but not 
his bank account, as he develops an increasingly expensive drug habit.

Redemption, or so it appears, comes in the form of James Mullen and his friends, known collectively as “the Lads”, whom Ben knew from his fee-paying, rugby-worshipping secondary school. They co-opt him for a fraudulent property deal in Serbia that goes horribly wrong. Ben eventually ends up in rehab, sparring with his psychiatrist, Dr Felix, and using written words to pick his way through the wreckage of what has been left in his wake.

Ben is Power’s unforgettable creation. Self-absorbed, mean-spirited, delusional, incapable for most of the novel of exercising even the most primitive form of empathetic imagination, any generous impulses sabotaged by a kind of lazy calculation, he is the credible spokesman for a collapse that is not only personal but societal. The unblinking monotony of his addiction, meticulously recorded, and the shallowness of his engagement with others – parents, girlfriends – point up a deficit of meaning that gradually dismantles his world of unspoken advantage.

There is a strong sense that ignoring responsibility for the legacies of past injustices leads to the continuing carnage of inequality in the present

When in the unforgiving absences of St Augustine, the rehab clinic, Ben wonders about the point of the writing he eventually consents to, he asks: “What did I think I was writing? I thought I was telling a story about money, and drugs, and failure, and lies. But perhaps it’s just a story about the end of a family”. His father, traumatised by the loss of a brother and the sale of the family farm, retreats into the abstract frenzy of capital accumulation, leaving his wife and son to self-medicate their way through the empty house of his neglect. If Ben shares his father’s name, he also inherits a form of emotional inarticulacy that brings much harm in its path.

White City, which takes its name from the literal meaning of Beograd (Belgrade in Serbian), moves between locations in Dublin and Serbia. The Serbia of the novel is almost cartoonish in its state of unrelieved decay. Cities and countryside alike are marked by economic indifference and political abandonment. Aleks, the translator, tries to make Ben aware of the complicated histories of the region against the braying backdrop of Ben’s Irish colleagues who see the proposed property development as just another opportunity to fleece the locals.

When digging on the site uncovers a mass grave containing the skeletal remains of young victims of recent atrocities, Ben is shocked into the seriousness of what is at stake: “History is here, Aleks had said. Oh yes. History was there and we had dug it up – we had caused the Echo lake development to take place. Me, the Lads, James Mullens. It was our responsibility, we had trespassed on old earth, old hatreds, knowing nothing.”

Ireland, too, of course, has its sorry record of the skeletal remains of the young and the unwanted. There is a strong sense in the novel that ignoring responsibility for the legacies of past injustices leads to the continuing carnage of inequality in the present and the almost parodic impunity of what the poet Michael O’Loughlin has called “the Inheritors”.

Power is savagely funny in his capture of the language and antics of the Lads as they booze their way through other people’s money. He is withering on the bench-press prose of the Team Leader in the BlueVista Marketing Solutions call centre, where Ben briefly works, with the Leader’s scrambled lingo of dressing room pep talk and MBA hokey. (“‘How’s she cuttin’?’ Richie said when I reported to his desk. ‘Feeling good about the new campaign?’’’)

White City has passages of striking lyrical subtlety and the different story lines are managed with great dexterity. Much has changed in Ireland since Bad Day in Blackrock was published, but as Power’s adept and absorbing new novel reminds us, much has not. White City demands to be read.

Michael Cronin is director of the Trinity Centre for Literary and Cultural Translation