Enough levity to make a book about the darkest days of The Troubles enjoyable
For The Good Times was the first Keenan book I came across but I decided it was right to read his debut This is Memorial Device first, which I reviewed last year. If you drew a venn diagram of some of my key personality traits – Irish heritage and an interest in fringe music scenes – Keenan’s novels would sit quite firmly in the middle, so I am quite a captive audience for him.
Memorial Device, the fictional story of a cult band, was noteworthy for its very unconventional writing style. Good Times begins on a similar footing, which feels a bit alien, but I’d urge readers to persevere through the first few pages as it quickly breaks into more conventional story telling than his debut. For one, Good Times actually has a central protagonist – Samuel – who relates a broadly chronological account of being a young IRA member in Belfast in the late ’70s.
Keenan is still having fun with form though. Mixed in amid the narrative are jokes, poems, comic book scripts. It reminds me of the best of Irvine Welsh in his use of dialect but also in the brutal tone. Perhaps not surprising for a story set during the heart of The Troubles, this is a dark and violent book, and Keenan shows little concern for making his characters likeable. They are kids playing at being murderers, and enjoying it. Where you might hope to see some remorse or crisis of conscience after a terrible act, instead you’re shown elation:
“We road off, triumphant, into the black fucking night of 1970s Northern Ireland,
the best decade that ever lived.”
This is very intentionally not a story of IRA heroes with, what I assume, is purposeful choice from Keenan to only portray republicans inflicting violence against other republicans. This helps avoid a “good” against “bad” narrative (which would depend on your perspective) and enables him to traverse a difficult period of history. While the protagonist Samuel does share some of his ideology – again, it is intentionally confused – with him calling the English Nazis but then going on to compare himself to Hitler throughout the novel. He also laments the more intellectual portions of the IRA. In short, this book doesn’t rule out that there were IRA members fighting for a true cause, but the ones we are following are not them.
The genius of Keenan’s novel is that the setting of ’70s Ireland is utterly convincing. Not just in the presence of the IRA (“the Ra”, “the Boys”) and the constant shadow of violence (although I am sure that is authentic as well) but also in the little details that contribute to unmistakable Irish-ness. Decades later, I still recognise these features in my own Irish family – being slightly behind the times and wary of anything new, Mas continuing to make tea in the midst of complete chaos, and strange contradictions, like the republican families with a fascination with the royals. These characterisations are all brilliantly captured and reminded me of home.
These quirky details, the breaks in the story for anecdotes and jokes, and a very dark sense of humour, provides just enough levity to draw you into what is otherwise a very dark story. This gives Keenan more time and scope to explore the nature of The Troubles – the locality of it, the violence, confusion, pointless deaths – and makes a story that could be a bit of a hard slog, inventive, amusing and enjoyable. Here’s one of my favourite jokes in the book:
“There’s an Irish priest, in a Vauxhall Viva,
on the other side of the border
and he’s swerving to this way and to that
across the lanes, so as the garda have got zero choice
but to pull him over,
“This is on the road, from Newry to Dundalk,
I’m sure youse mind the one.
Have you been drinking, Father? the first garda says,
and he smells booze on the priest’s bad brefff.
On the passenger seat, he spies a bottle,
of Blue Nunn, emptied, to the last.
“Sure, says the priest, but only water has passed these lips.
Then how is it I can smell wine?
And the priest looks down, at the empty wine bottle,
and he says,
Christ Jayzus, he’s done it again!”
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