Catriona MacKernan, review of The Life of Riley by Anthony Cronin, in Books Ireland (Dec. 2010), pp.267-68.

In Anthony Cronins’s comic novel, Riley is an alcoholic scrounger, who likes nobody, least of all those who help him out. If he possesses charm, it is dwarfed by his soliloquy of cold calculations throughout the novel. Riley’s mock-heroic style contrasts amusingly with his reportage of the dialogue:

I could not find out, since my unknown prolocutor, once embarked on his theme ... brushed my queries briskly aside, but my premonitions were not put to sleep when he ended his discourse by declaring ‘I hear the old bollocks on the stairs now ... if you have anything to do with that old cunt, you’ll regret it. He’s left a trail of dead men behind him wherever he went’.

The OB, Proinnsias, intellectual editor of The Trumpet, commissions some articles from Riley. Like all of Riley’s would-be rescuers, he is vaguely left-wing - outrageously ignorant but volubly Marxist. He demands that Riley be ‘wurred in to the ‘diolectic’

An earlier rescuer ‘in grocing’ is the Assistant Secretary to the Secretary. The Secretary had been compelled to put his holidays off because of the messenger boys’ strike and the bacon commission and the mixed trading act, to say nothing of the corporation market plan. Hardly Riley’s cup of tea. He resigns, and his worries vanish and are replaced by mere problems, such as his deteriorating clothes and being financed by Bridget, his girl friend, who becomes openly unsympathetic.

His next rescuer is Sir George Dermot. His home ‘Ardash’ is a haven of culture in the Dublin mountains where Nigerian intellectuals Obe Jasus and his wife help with pottery, Uncle Apsey does the cooking and Sir George in the music room imposes Mahler’s “Song of the Earth” producing fashionable angst and nightmares. Driven away by the music to live in a shed back in Dublin, Riley spends desultory afternoons in the National Library, placing a bet or two when he has cash.

Among other equally awful residences in Dublin and in London, he lives in a windowless room in a basement of a Georgian square. There the owner Sir Mortlake’s principal source of income is from the empty Guinness bottles left behind after his frequent parties. Fortunately for Riley, ‘Irishry’ and above all its patois and jargon is popular in Dublin and London, and gets him a job in the BBC, but of short duration as the British Welfare State beckons.

This novel is funny, not because of Schadenfreude: we painfully feel each time Riley sinks pigheadedly gutterward. It is funny rather because Riley sends up the fashionable isms to which many of us subscribed. We laugh at our former selves.

The novel is dated in other respects. There were no checks by gárdaí on drunken drivers:

At ten o’clock, the cars swept [from O’Turk’s, the hub of drinking and contacts] out along the mountain roads ... as if fleeing a plague; at half past twelve they swept back, awash with song and Guinness ... and until dawn the noise of breaking glass ... and cracking skulls would float over the bay.

Nowadays, political correctness would exclude Riley’s portrayal of his various ladies, all smacking of Foster’s ‘My wife is a wonderful woman’. One such patron, with ‘a wide acquaintance among the literary riff-raff’, was a cotton heiress. Though rabidly left-wing, she did not seem to realise there was a general scarcity of cotton plantations. ‘There she sat while I worked ... lambasting and vilifying my character, my achievements and my ways in terms of the fashionable psychology of the day.’ He is in a way to blame for embarking on the downward path while still on the potty. ‘Irishmen, victims of puritanism, felt a subconscious need to regard wives and mistresses as mother figures ... to defy, mock and disobey them and hence have affairs.’

Nevertheless, between Riley’s contemptuous lines, his somewhat pompous benefactors, angst-ridden by the struggling artistes’ lack of support, emerge. The would-be benefactors feel guilt at the plight of the scrounging, unproductive, beggar artistes. How lucky we are that benefaction has been taken over by ourversion of Acadèmie Française, the distant and formal Aosdána with tax concessions, usually for genuine artists.

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