Comedy is hard to do, or hard to do well. A dramatic story, or a thriller, that doesn’t quite work is just dull or frustrating. But comic writing that’s just a few degrees off is an embarrassment, an abomination, a horrible negative image of what it purports to be. I knew from my student days that Julian Gough could turn an amusing lyric with his pop band Toasted Heretic, but had been frankly put off his novel Jude: Level 1 by the quote on the front which promised “a cross between Flann O’Brien, Father Ted and Morrissey.”
Jude: Level 1, Gough’s second novel, opens with a set piece which, published alone as ‘The Orphan and the Mob’, won the 2007 National Short Story Award. It’s a frantic comic caper, narrated by eighteen-year-old orphan Jude from “the most desolate place in Ireland, and the last place God created”, as he shames his country by despoiling the prominent descendant of a national idol in the most embarrassing (and amusing) way imaginable. Yet even here, amid liberal slapstick and an excess of Komic Kapitals, there are teeth: Gough pokes fun at the Irish tendency toward long memories of historic slights and anyone-but-the-English hero worship as a crowd responds to a rabble-rousing speech:
“It was in this place…” he said, with a generous gesture which incorporated much of Tipperary, “…that Eamonn DeValera…”
Everybody removed their hats.
“…hid heroically from the entire British army…”
Everybody scowled and put their hats back on.
“…during the War of Independence. It was in this very boghole that Eamonn DeValera…”
Everybody removed their hats again.
“…had his Vision: A Vision of Irish Maidens dancing barefoot at the crossroads, and of Irish Manhood dying heroically while refusing to the last breath to buy English shoes…”
At the word English the crowd put their hats back on, though some took them off again when it turned out only to be shoes. Others glared at them. They put their hats back on again.
(Gough accused his Irish contemporaries of having long memories too, in a recent piece which attracted controversy: “what the FECK are writers in their 20s and 30s doing, copying the very great John McGahern, his style, his subject matter, in the 21st century?”)
There is also a nice dig at the Irish love-hate relationship with Europe: its fierce independence, tempered by the knowledge that its Celtic Tiger boom of the 1990s (last seen retreating with its tail between its legs) was largely funded with European money. “Grateful as we are to the Europeans,” roars the political speaker, “we should never forget that they are a shower of Foreign Bastards who would Murder us in our Beds given Half a Chance!”
All this makes for a cumulative tour de force, but after the orphan escapes the mob (sorry to spoil it for you), can Gough keep it up? And do we want him to? A little whimsy goes a long way, and there is a lot on show here. Jude’s quest for his “Origins” takes him from “the Sodom of the West: Galway City” to “dear dirty Dublin” – and, after this book ends, beyond – and the journey is a riot of antic mayhem. It takes in bikers, Leonardo diCaprio as an erectile Pinnochio, a case of mistaken identity with Stephen Hawking, and a sex scene on a camel, all delivered with considerable comic brilliance. But brilliance can be exhausting, so fortunately, just as I was wondering if a 180-page novel can possibly be too long, the teeth return, sharper and bloodier, and Gough brings us back again and again to what’s wrong with Ireland. We get portraits dripping with ridicule of, among others, Charles Haughey, the former Taoiseach who fell so far from grace that even before his death, he was practically unlibellable:
From the doorway of his palatial retirement mausoleum, former Taoiseach Charles J. Haughey, the smoke curling from the barrel of his rifle, trotted with dainty tread down the broad granite steps and across the gravel. He was followed by the masked figure of Jimmy O’Bliss, and by Dan Bunne, the Supermarket Magnate and one of the great Political Donors of our Age. Our greatest living Retailer, our greatest living Developer and our greatest living Politician! We would have been naked, homeless and ideologically incoherent without them. They had given us so much, no wonder they looked so Wrecked.
The vinegar dripping from Gough’s pen gets into full flood in the later sections of the book. Modern Ireland, beneath its veneer of urbanity and multiculturalism, is as backward and parochial as ever. “The Blacks get everything and we get fuck all!” cries one Dubliner, which surprises Jude:
“But you yourself,” I pointed out, “are a black man.”
“Dear God! Dear Jesus! The rumours were true! My Dada a black man! My Mam a Nigger-Lover! And I… a Nigger! A Nigger! In my house! There will be no Nigger in my House!”
And with a great shout and his arms about his own shoulders he got his head in a headlock and threw himself out of his flat.
These serious (or seriocomic) underpinnings provide welcome ballast, some of which has even greater resonance today than when the book was first published in 2007: “Some priests were raped thousands of times, by hundreds of children, over a period of decades,” a Bishop tells Jude. “Often a priest would move to another school to escape his tormentors, only to be set upon again.”
The closing scenes of the book surprise by bringing the reader to something like melancholy, and at this point I realised that Gough has turned an impressive trick. He has written a very funny book where realism doesn’t get a look-in, but reality is ever-present. It skirts the brink of outstaying its welcome and then, in the end, made me wish it had gone on longer. As the subtitle suggests, I’m probably in luck.
Postscript: 7 Dec 2010
This post has had some more attention in the last day or two, ever since Julian Gough achieved the holy grail of literary promotion in our age: a tweet from Stephen Fry. He was linking to Gough’s article on the comic novel in Prospect, but what it made me realise was that Jude seems even more relevant now than it did ten months ago when I wrote the above. The wholesale financial humbling of Ireland which has been in the news in recent weeks, and the causes thereof, seem entirely apposite to a book in which one of the villains is a Fianna Fáil property developer.
Worth noting too, is that Gough predicted the global financial crisis with alarming accuracy in February 2007, six months before the beginning of the credit crunch, and 18 months before the collapse of Lehman Brothers.
It is beginning to look from these aspects that Gough is a modern seer whose word should not be doubted and whose wrath should not be incurred. I’d buy the book and read it, just in case.