Saturday, 30 March 2013

The Little Hammer

The Little Hammer - John Kelly

When I read that John Kelly's new (third) novel coming out on Dalkey Archive Press I thought that it must finally be time to take down his first book for a read.

John Kelly is a rather wonderful dj and the presenter of Ireland's premier TV arts shows for a number of years. As presenter of The View he often had (then) aspiring novelists Belinda McKeown and Peter Murphy as panelists. I have both of their novels in my to be read pile so expect a complete panel of reviews sometime in the next few years.
This book smacks of first novel syndrome and it is difficult to read it for long without thoughts of Pat McCabe rising to the surface of your mind. That said, it has some wonderful passages where the resemblance is not an issue. It is a comic novel, with ostensibly chilling/disturbing overtones. After The Butcher Boy, however, it seems tame and I never felt as  connected to the narrator as I did to Francie Brady. But then The Butcher Boy is a little bit special.  Kelly almost forces you to make the comparison by setting key sequences of the book in Bundoran, also a key location in The Butcher Boy.

The book opens with a confession (or is it a confusion?) "Would you believe me if I told you that I was only nine years of age when I killed him? Would you believe me if I told you that I killed him stone dead and the granny was mortified.."} The framing of the confession within a question sows seeds of doubt right from the start and you constantly wonder if you are reading the confessions of a killer or the ramblings of a fantasist.

As well as this tension between belief and questioning there is also a running series of incidents and images that have burial or exposure at their heart. The man who was apparently killed "was by vocation a palaeontologist - a devotee of extinct beings." The titular hammer is the palaeontologist's hammer. It's purpose to release the bones of history from their clayey bed. We are told that the narrator's Granny , the family matriarch, orders him to keep quiet about the murder. "To carry a terrible secret for twenty-one years of a thirty-year-old life is an awful and destructive thing. To talk about it now will be, for me, as good as a tonic - like a weekend on Lough Derg or a good boke." (Boke, for those unfamiliar with Irish slang, is a form of rapid and often unbidden regurgitation of food and/or alcohol, often caused by undercooking of the former or overindulgence in the latter)

Child of Prague, missing head, as many were/are.
As well as the little hammer, the book is filled with references to statues of the Child of Prague and Action Men, and both figure in the narrator's paintings, for that is what he does. Indeed, this may be where the author met him, for he tells us "I am constantly asked to appear on long-winded arts programmes about nothing in particular."

Perhaps the greatest pleasures offered by this book are the humorous yet bleak takes on Irish childhood in the seventies and some of the objects that adorned childhoods at the time. He turns many truisms on their head such as that which holds that the poor are happy.  "As I developed my powers of observation I began to realise that we were as a family afflicted by the realities of a certain poverty but that in spite of this, we were not at all happy. "

Here is his Action Man,  who metamorphs between identities on an Ovidian scale - "On this spooky Bundoran occasion he was dressed in what was called sabotage gear - black jumper, black trousers and a black woolen cap - a cross between a commando and a coal man." "It was a dangerous mission but he was well armed with a Sten gun from some other military outfit and a Luger from the days when he used to dress as a Nazi Staff Officer. I also felt that his days as a professional footballer would also stand him to some degree."

He catches the short lived obsessions of young children such as when the saints come marching in "like Marvel superheroes - each with special gifts and uniforms and so, out of drenched boredom, I became, for a brief time, a ten-year-old religious maniac." Potted lives of some of these saints interrupt the narrative, as do headlines from some newspaper - a Flann O'Brien style appropriation of a Joycean touch.


There is also some great writing about school, which raised the hackles of that dog that's always sniffing in the dark corners of my memory. "It seems, in fairness, that learning was not the actual function of the place anyway. It all seemed much more to do with the colour of your trousers, what side of the corridors you walked on, how long your hair was and an equally strict dogma about not being able to hang around the radiators when you arrived in soaked to the skin.." And this, which could form part of Kelly's own Devil's Dictionary "Lay teachers - civilians who were allowed to wear their own moustaches as long as they never slagged the church or said a bad word."

By the end of the book even the Pope has been engaged in the narrator's efforts to have the truth about what had really happened to the Child of Prague. You'll have to read it to find out what happened, or if anything happened. I look forward to reading a book by Kelly which engages the emotions as much as the funny bone. An excess of ironic distance can keep you from really caring. Which is a shame. A promising first book. I'll be keeping my eyes open for his second and am interested to see how his new book fares later in the year. It appears to have taken years to write and may be a breakthrough. Here's hoping.

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