Mickey, the adolescent chief protagonist of The Good Son is hemmed in on every side by The Troubles. He must not find himself in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong accent or school uniform, be called Mickey instead of Ian in the shadow of the Shankill Butchers. Conversely, on the catholic side of No Mans Land, Mickey must not get on the wrong side of the IRA hard men and their playground spies (a playground scuffle with another kid can turn into an IRA warning). In short, Mickey’s life is deeply constrained by large violent men on both sides of the conflict.
Mickey is an artsy theatrical kid on the cusp of adulthood. His sense of self is having to emerge in the shadow of a truly toxic version of masculinity: his father beats his mother, he’s been threatened by an IRA hardman, dragged out from under the bed by British soldiers, and in Mickey’s world men drink, throw their weight about and issue orders. They seem to make all the rules, and daily pull the rug out from under any sort of progress. The women in Mickeys world are somewhat forced to work around the men, and they do so defiantly, cleverly, hilariously. It is the women who keep the family together, the children alive and fed, and it is the women in Mickey’s life who must stitch together pragmatic solutions to the problems created by men. But Mickey is a boy who is going to be a man, and at this point in his life he is a boy without heroes.
For Mickey,Just being himself is dangerous. Just like a catholic caught on the wrong side of town has to act Protestant, or vice versa, a smart thoughtful kid in a rundown school has to be careful to whom he reads out his poetry.
There is a lot of dark, sparky humour in this novel and I’m thinking particularly of the banter between Mickey and his beloved Ma. The dialect itself seems to lend itself to rich, wry and poetic insults.
McVeigh could have written this novel as a tragedy or a misery memoir, instead he chooses comedy. But in this writer’s capable hands Mickey’s hilarious one liners and rich flights of fancy do not mask or distract us from the tragedy at the heart of his story, rather they reveal it. In some ways this entire novel is an exercise in bathos.
The Good Son is a unique insight into a time and place like no other, Northern Ireland during The Troubles, through the eyes of a smart, artsy, thoroughly principled, gently camp and not particularly streetwise kid. But Mickey has his rich imagination to save him. That and the filims, which give him a window into a world outside the terrifying grey trap into which he was born. Young Mickey plots to save his family and become a filim star in America, all the while with a deep understanding that not everyone in his story will necessarily get out alive.
I think a lot of British people have a sense or a belief that the Catholic Protestant divide in Belfast is chiefly an ideological or tribal divide. To be honest we’re quite uncomprehending about it. But McVeigh’s novel makes it clear, in a hundred small ways, that the area is in fact a geographical, social and economic trap. And that if people support sectarian violence then in many cases it’s because they’ve been cornered into doing so, or manipulated in one way or another. That these kinds of decisions and allegiances are the pragmatic ethics of survival. Mickey is in every way possible antithetical to his environment, and therefore he is best placed to reveal it. The Good Son implicitly asks the question, how do you spring a child from a trap like this?