Hearts of gold, bullets of lead


THIS novel will undoubtedly draw fire from certain quarters for being publican propaganda, which it unashamedly is. But this will be to miss the point. Using the novel as a means of promoting a political cause is not new and has often been very successful. And of the millions of words which the Northern Ireland conflict have brought to paper, very few have been written from this perspective. Republicans have a valid viewpoint and one which is as fit a subject for a novel as any other. So let's hear no more about that.

Trouble is, Danny Morrison is no Alan Paton and this novel is certainly not Cry, the Beloved Country. Danny approaches his subject with all the subtlety of a fox in a chicken coop and in doing so falls headlong into the very trap that republicans have so often accused other writers on Northern Ireland of getting enmeshed in.

Everything in the novel is stereotypical, for Danny just can't resist the temptation to reach for his sledgehammer when a nut cracker would do.

So we have our clean cut, new man hero Raymond Massey who cleans the house, does the washing up, helps a neighbour get his electricity switched on, pours a glass of wine for his wife Roisin, and then goes out to attack the dastardly Brits.

These, of course, are evil bastards, every last one, without any redeeming features. Just like the RUC who squeeze poor Raymond's balls when they stop his car and make Roisin and her wee fella, Aidan, stand in the pouring rain. Sure a man wouldn't be a red blooded Irishman at all to put up with that class of carry on.

Here's Raymond in the pub after an assassination attempt on a prison officer has had to be called off: "After all that work. Get me another orange." No, honestly, I'm not making it up. Or this: ". . . he tightened his eyes, excluded the real world and surged on through the supreme darkness." That's Danny's description of a fella getting his oats in the back of a car up the Divis mountain.

Throughout, the novel is written in what the Northern critic Jack Holland has identified as the "Ulster fry" school of writing. That is, everybody in the little houses in West Belfast has a heart of corn. They are all decent, take the shirt off their backs types; doting grandfathers, wise cracking buddies, friendly winos. "Here, take my last shilling." "Ah no. I couldn't do that." "Go on. Sure the pawn's open in the morning." You know the kind of stuff.

And every couple of chapters we are forced to endure Raymond's breast beating moralising on what he's doing, long passages of purple prose that sound like something out of Speeches from the Dock. Everything would be grand if only the Brits would come to their senses and tell the Unionists that the party's over, as Raymond himself says as he sips wine on the banks of the Seine on his honeymoon.

Throughout, the reader longs for a shaft of imagination, a leap of faith, a glimpse of Tone's noble vision of the unity of Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter. It's as if in Morrison's blighted landscape, Protestants hardly exist.

From the sadistic RUC men, there's only one mention of a Protestant, a poor devil called Joe Powderly who has ventured into West Belfast for a bit of the other and has the misfortune to be in the UDR. And you know what happens to him. That's right. Raymond and his pals blow his head off, although later, Raymond appears to have some doubts about the morality of this action.

This turgid novel lumbers to its thankfully brief conclusion with a host of stereotyped characters, limp dialogue and a virtual absence of plot. Indeed, the only truly sympathetic character is the informer, Tod, who ends up joining the other corpses in Milltown cemetery.

Some of this might be overlooked in a first time novelist, struggling to find his feet. But this is Danny's third attempt and he should have learned a few tricks by now.

Another turkey, I'm afraid.