Every so often, a writer comes along who cheers Ireland up, not because the books are cheerful – on the contrary, indeed – but because the writing enlarges a particular sense we have of ourselves. Claire Keegan is one such writer, John McGahern is perhaps the best known, and Donal Ryan is the latest addition to this distinguished line. He writes from the rural heartland in prose that always pushes for the truth of things. Ryans language is colloquial and easy, but the central emotion is, for lack of a better word, dignified. His characters are large-hearted people in a small-minded world and this timeless theme is played out, not in misty boggy nowhere-land, but in a contemporary Irish space, where people talk on their mobiles and the halal meat plant has been recently closed down.
The Spinning Heart, his first published novel, was told from 21 different points of view and was set after the collapse of the Irish boom. It was the success of this book that brought his first, much rejected manuscript to light. The Thing About December is set while the bubble is still inflating and it is, for my money, the better book. It has only one voice, that of Johnsey Cunliffe, whose slow puzzlement burns through the story like the spark on a long fuse. The explosion, when it comes, is finely judged by Ryan, who is interested in what makes men kill other people or themselves. Maleness is experienced, by his characters, as an impossible state, a kind of accident waiting to happen. McGahern is the reference point here because masculinity is an issue for both writers, their characters are often in thrall to the figure of the father, and they are both interested in knowing how to escape that love, or what it might mean.
Johnsey is in mourning for his father who was a paragon, tough but fair: Hed give ground to no man. A farmer who took no notice of the neighbours, in their foolishness and venality, he often talked about money as though it was only a nuisance of a thing that you had to pay heed to only the odd time. And he was tender of his son, who has few defences against the outside world. When Johnseys mother also dies, leaving him the land, the pressure on him to sell to local developers becomes immense.
Johnsey describes himself as a bit of a gom. His language is a reminder that the Irish have a hundred words for stupid and use the word clever as an insult all of its own. He is a bit of a God-help-us, a great clumsy yoke, a meely-mawly, an auld eejit of a crossbreed pup. We are not sure, in fact, how stupid Johnsey is, or how self-lacerating. The creeping reveal of his mothers character is key to understanding his nature, perhaps. At the beginning of the book, she is a maker of powerful, tasty dinners; by the end, she had a tongue on her that could cut a man right in two.
It is a fashionable thing to do – to work a narrator who is somehow childlike in an adult world – but Ryans control is terrific. He underplays the ironic distance and pulls our sympathies tight. And he tells a great story. His paragraphs are unnoticeably beautiful, his heart always on show, and he writes with a social accuracy that is devastating. He knows the tiny differences that make all the difference – between the small town and the countryside, between the labouring classes and those who own a few acres, between the local council tenants and the ones relocated from the city.
This is a world away from posh Protestant versus cute Catholic tales of yore, and different again from the airless self-enclosure of the families in McGaherns books. People drive around and meet one another in a novel that is set in the Irish countryside. I dont know why this seems like an amazing thing for them to do. There are others who manage this trick, perhaps, but not many who hit the sweet spot of the Irish tradition as Donal Ryan does here.