Fiction:At first glance a novel centred on the story of a young Irishman in New York taking the job of caring for a dying man who suffers from muscular dystrophy might seem something of a challenge for a reader: unremitting tragedy seems a highly likely prospect.
And certainly, tragedy has its place in The Companion. Yet Lorcan Roche's achievement is that he manages to make his story much more than simply a look at the darker sides of life.
Central to the novel, and perhaps the main reason for its success, is the character of Trevor, the companion of the title. As the teller and the hero of the story, it is he who holds all the narrative strands together. His voice, hovering compellingly between the expected tragic and the comic, is brilliantly realised by Roche. His is a high-energy rapid-fire patter, sprinkled with pop culture references to television and film and music. Trevor is a cocky smart-ass who always has a line or two to say on everything and everyone. He comes across at times as a worldly-wise, aloof observer of human folly. But then, amusingly, that mask slips and he is an utterly unknowing fool, caught up in events beyond his control. This combination of caustic wit and abject ignorance is wholly authentic, making Trevor a character that is at once appealing and complicated.
THE NARRATIVE HOPS briskly between the past and the present, between Dublin and New York, with Trevor's story steadily unfolding and a clearer picture of his life and times emerging. Those he meets are interesting because of the ways in which he makes them a part of his story. Most of the women in Trevor's world are notable for their weird sexual urges. Men fare no better: people come and go, an array of grotesques, and the unusual and the strange are commonplace. He is angry on occasion, and he rants and mocks the world and the people in it. Just as quickly, though, his tone changes and a more tender, vulnerable character appears.
His family life has been somewhat dysfunctional, his only ally being his ailing mother. His sisters and his academic father are pen-portraits of the worst excesses of middle-class Ireland: anyone who does not live up to their standards of high achievement and stiff decorum are to be abused and belittled, and sadly Trevor is one of those people in their eyes.
Trevor is a bodily presence in the world of the novel: he is large and he is strong and has been out of place because of it since a child. His physical potency stands in stark contrast to Ed, the young man he is a companion to in his final months, and with those he met when he worked in the Central Remedial Clinic at home in Dublin. Despite our culture's desire to not see disability, to make it invisible so that it can be ignored, Trevor comes to know that there is a common humanity to be grasped and cherished. So where one expects difference, we are presented with similarity: those who are truly disabled in this novel have full use of their limbs and their mental faculties, but are crippled emotionally.
As a first-time novelist, Lorcan Roche handles his material well, never losing control over his narrative, keeping his reader's attention throughout. His novel is brash and knowing, but it also celebrates those things that seem absent in Celtic Tiger Ireland: personal and communal feeling. Would that there were more characters like Trevor in our world.
Derek Hand is currently writing a history of the Irish novel for the Cambridge University Press. He lectures in the English department in St Patrick's College, Drumcondra, Dublin
The Companion By Lorcan Roche The Lilliput Press, 312pp. €15