At a time when most Irish institutions have fallen into disrepute, theres something comforting about the yearly emergence of a new Ross OCarroll-Kelly book. A bit of an institution now in his own right, OCarroll-Kelly is one of a pantheon of anthropomorphic Irelands (others include Cuchulain, Kathleen Ní Houlihan, Dev and Marty Whelan). Its hard to imagine the place without him, and I believe that, in years to come, heavily footnoted editions of Paul Howards long-running series will be the textbooks on early 21st-century Ireland.
In fact, I assume it will be annotated sooner rather than later. Howard does not steer clear of celebrities of the moment, brand names, street names or passing news stories. (Indeed, filtered through the affluenza-tinted eyes of Ross such minutiae often seem kind of exotic.) It wont be long before readers will be wondering who Katie Holmes and Suri Cruise were, so I suspect the books will soon come with more footnotes than T. S. Eliots The Waste Land.
The Shelbourne Ultimatum is a lot funnier than The Waste Land, even though at the outset of this book, the 11th in the series, Ross moves through a bit of a wasteland himself. In a coma (he was shot in the stomach at the end of the last book) he dreams of moving through the streets of a Dublin blighted by phone shops and cash-for-gold outlets.
Before long, our clueless anti-hero is awake and bemoaning the state of his injured six-pack. He tries to sabotage the wedding of his best friend, Fionn, and his half-sister; he blackmails the woman who shot him; and he watches in horror as his estranged wife gets a job in a Euro Saver store. He also crosses the Liffey to go to a GAA match with his northsider son (they meet a lot of cadickters), watches his condemned boomtime apartment being demolished, and ends up being mistaken for a plumber by a cuckolded husband who then refers plumbing work to him throughout the book. Furthermore, his Lamborghini is repeatedly graffitied with obscenities, his six-year-old daughter is becoming a brattish child star and he bonds with his sociopathic, hither-to-now presumed-dead grandmother.
Thats an awful lot of plot, but theres no better man than Ross to guide us through it, gormlessly riding the narrative tension from set piece to set piece. Luckily, being shot hasnt triggered any earth-shattering self-reflection, and while Ross might be an unreliable person, hes too blissfully self-confident to be an unreliable narrator. He recounts life warts and all, never thinking for once that it might reflect badly on him. His asides, casual thoughts and turns of phrase are still absurdly hilarious. (Are the jokes really that good? Does Brent Pope shit in the woods?, to quote Ross.)
Ross has not, as one character puts it, let failure go to his head and he is still unaccountably happy with himself and content to bask in his former rugby glory. Ross OCarroll-Kelly? asks a voice over the telephone at one juncture. The one and only accept no substitutes, answers Ross, before proudly informing the readers: Which is a thing I sometimes say.
As usual, characters explode out of their accent-laden stereotypes to feel like surreally real human beings. Irish society is parsed and analysed along the way and genuine class war occasionally looms from beneath the surface. People like us are never really skint. Not the way ordinary people are, Ross says at one point, accurately reflecting the difference between poverty and poverty. Elsewhere, his old dear calls discount stores the potato blight of the modern age, while extracts from her recessionary misery memoir, Mom, They Said Theyd Never Heard of Sundried Tomatoes, are sprinkled through the book like a play within a play.
This fictional piece of fiction is being adapted into a film featuring Rosss daughter, and features increasingly hilarious depictions of middle-class Dubliners down on their luck (a Subway employee has never heard of organic truffle butter; a child must eat her pony). Indeed, so filled with postboom malaise is The Shelbourne Ultimatum that when his redundant friend Oisinn starts a business dismantling mouldy decking for property owners filled with buyers remorse, Ross worries that its a metaphor for the Celtic Tiger.
This latter joke is possibly directed at overzealous critics like myself eager to laud Howard as the preeminent satirist of our times. And okay, this book wouldnt work so well if it wasnt first and foremost a rollicking tale of a likeable, overprivileged buffoon who, at one point, has a poo in a laptop and likes nothing better than to have a go on a girls top 10 hits (this is rhyming slang). He has a go on a lot of them, actually, from those of his friends married sister, to those of his daughters long-suffering American PA, to those of his estranged wifes sister, to those of a criminally minded Welsh woman with an ankle monitor. He even sexts a family member.
But the truth is that, much as Howard might cover the fact in lowbrow shenanigans, he actually is the preeminent satirist of the times. We regularly complain about how artists and writers and musicians dont grapple with the big issues rocking the nation. Well, Howard has chosen to consistently grapple with the little issues (decking, discount stores, bank shares, downsizing, failing businesses, Katie Holmes) in a manner that says more about contemporary Ireland than a whole Aosdánas-worth of state-of-the-nation authors. To borrow a great critics phrase about the rugby player Paul OConnell: if you are what you eat then Paul Howard must have been eating a focking legend. (The great critic was Ross OCarroll-Kelly.)