Ollie Innocent and the terrible English,
This review is from: Sudden Times (Hardcover)The narrator, Ollie, is suffering from various mental problems exacerbated by voluntary as well as involuntary intakes of drugs. In the first half of the novel we find him returning from London to his native Sligo in Ireland, where his own confused narrative is made even more muddled by the locals speaking a kind of English that isn't really "sloppy", as some reviewers have claimed, just a strong dialect. The author's decision to leave out speech marks does its best to add to the intentional lack of clarity. Furthermore, Ollie has flashbacks to his time in London and some nasty experiences that are only very vaguely hinted at. Clearly, the intention is to build up some dramatic tension, but it really only works as an annoyance that distracts from what is otherwise a friendly and humorous description of a local Irish community full of sweet, quirky and rather innocently dysfunctional people, as the Irish like to see themselves.
Many Irish people also like to see the English as a bunch of crooks and bandits, who know nothing better than to harass and discriminate against Irish citizens. Such images dominate the second part of the novel, a long flashback where Ollie, then in his early or mid twenties, travels to late 1980s London to find employment. He is drawn into a mysterious murder case and falls out with a gang of English brutes, led by a man called Silver John. Towards the end of the novel, at a costume party, Ollie's younger brother falls out with Silver John's bodyguard Scots Bob, and Scots Bob pours petrol over Ollie's brother and sets fire to him. Scots Bob, incidentally, isn't really a Scot (had he been, he would probably be all right), but has just lived there for some time and is now a dedicated enemy of all things Celt.
The storyline is littered with inconsistencies, dark areas, contradictions and illogical behaviour by nearly all the characters, as is pointed out by Scots Bob's nasty English defence lawyer towards the end of the story when he cross examines Ollie (referring scornfully to the ROI as "The Irish Free State", as though it were still pre 1949). To an outsider it would look as though Ollie is a liar through and through, only we who are familiar with his own presentation of the events know better, the moral lesson being that life is much more complicated and coincidental than the kind of stringently logical world view some people are trying to force the rest of us into.
As such, this is a story about coming off age. In a dream Ollie has a third eye, a child's eye, in the middle of his forehead through which he sees the world. He is a person who hasn't really grown up, and perhaps doesn't have the mental capacity to do so. In that way, he represents all the people we meet in the early part of the novel, in Ireland, and the conflict between the world of the Irish and the English becomes a struggle between childish innocence and the cruel realities of growing up and learning to govern yourself in a rational manner.
In other words, this is serious and ambitious literature open to several layers of interpretation, and I wouldn't for a moment suggest anything other than Dermot Healy is a truly gifted writer. However, in my opinion this novel partly shoots itself in the foot by attempting, at least in its framework, to be too many things at one time: a piece of regional narrative and a crime story, even a courtroom drama, with more than just a few James Joyce inspired ramblings thrown in for good measure. The drawing on old clichés about both the Irish and the English is only acceptable if we take them as symbols for something else, as already suggested, and the novel's attempt to make serious fiction more appetising by mixing in elements of pulp literature isn't entirely successfully carried out - rather, it ends up sitting itself between a number of chairs. And to cap it all off, the lack of speech marks, and sometimes even crucial commas, is plain annoying and not really indicative of a narrator claimed to possess four 'A' levels.