John the Revelator
Faber and Faber. €12.99
"I was born in a storm". So begins journalist Peter Murphy's debut novel, as his protagonist, John Devine, invites us into his world. It's a portentous opening. The kind of opening that suggests this could be a novel bloated with its own sense of self-importance. Fortunately, this proves not to be the case.
John Devine is a teenager growing up in a small seaside town. He lives with his mother Lily, a Bible-quoting, no-nonsense chain smoker. John is an outsider. He reads voraciously, and his favourite book is Harper's Compendium of Bizarre Nature Facts, from which he can quote at length about the qualities and characteristics of various parasitic worms. John's small world is opened up when he meets and befriends Jamey Corboy, a seemingly dissolute young man with a fascination for Rimbaud.
Jamey writes stories, and it's these eccentric digressions, along with John's vivid hallucinatory dreams about crows and the end of days, which punctuate the main narrative. The book itself dispenses with the spine of a plot in favour of something looser and more rhythmic. Murphy has a very obvious affection for language, and for the crackle, spark and music of words. Even when describing decay and sourness, he manages to imbue things with an arresting beauty. He leads the reader down some atmospheric and moody byways, and avoids the dramatically obvious in favour of a gentle unravelling of John's friendship with Jamey, and John's attempts to deal with his mother's illness. The book moves with the organic grace of a coming-of-age movie, where everything of importance happens beneath the surface.
There is a picture-perfect description of a provincial nightclub, complete with chicken dinners and sweaty small-town desperation: "Sunburned mountainy men slouched on the periphery… observing the action like sad silverbacks." John has an electrifying vision of the apocalypse involving a panicked crucifixion on a beach. Jamey writes a letter in which he describes, in an elegantly perverse manner, the different levels of hell. There is a Proustian riff on all the smells that have had some significance in John's life, and it's in these moments that the book reveals its true pleasures, and indulges in the textures and sensations that give it its energy. Murphy is particularly good at describing the feverish angst of adolescence, the sweaty crawling-under-your-skin feeling of not knowing where you're going, and in John Devine he avoids the obvious and trite and creates an obliquely fascinating character.
Although this may not be the great Irish novel some would have us believe, it does have its memorable moments. Roddy Doyle has a particularly over-excitable blurb on the back cover and, after making up our own mind, we think that Roddy needs to take some valium and have a little lie-down in a dark room. To be fair, though the most impressive thing about the book is that Murphy has managed to write a fresh and convincing small-town novel in the shadow of The Butcher Boy. For most young Irish novelists, McCabe's book is something like one of Arthur C Clarke's monoliths in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It sends them into an inspirational frenzy, out of which they produce something not entirely of their own making. Murphy, on the other hand, has confidence in his own voice, and while you can detect influences here and there (Alan Moore, Ray Bradbury, the Beats) there is a unique imagination at work here that distils them, one that enjoys the electric charge of words under pressure, and the dazzling lyricism that that produces.