Peter Guttridge, review of Eureka Street by Robert McLiam Wilson, in The Guardian (1 Sept. 1996).

Details: Peter Guttridge, ‘Tales of love and sects’, review of Eureka Street by Robert McLiam Wilson, in The Guardian (1 Sept. 1996); available online [orig. access date unknown]. Available at The Guardian online; accessed 09.02.2011.]

‘All stories are love stories,’ Wilson declares at the start of his third and best novel. Eureka Street tells a number of them but, as you would expect from the author of the acerbic Ripley Bogle, there is nothing anodyne about them, nor is that all the book is about. Wilson’s fresh, unhackneyed, boy-meets-girl stories are set against the background of the Troubles in Belfast, against the competing truths of the sectarian divide. It is boy meets girl, not vice versa, but there is nothing laddish about Wilson’s writing of lads on the make. He satirises them and makes their boorishness touching. And funny. One boy is so jealous he dusts his girlfriend’s breasts for fingerprints.

Fat Protestant boy, Chuckie, says of his meeting with Max, the American girl with whom he falls in love: ‘He hadn’t told her too many lies and he hadn’t looked exclusively at her breasts. That was good going. Relative honesty and looking at her face while she spoke was good behaviour by Chuckie’s standards. For a moment he felt like a plump David Niven.’ Chuckie, who goes from poverty to wild riches in Ireland, then America, thanks to his crazed entrepreneurial vision, is one of the great comic capitalist creations, almost akin to Milo Minderbender in Catch 22 or William Gaddis’s JR. He cons various Northern Ireland economic regeneration bodies into giving him hundreds of thousands of pounds for wonderfully daft projects. Perhaps the funniest is a balaclava manufacturing business to take advantage of the headgear’s ubiquity in Ireland among terrorists of all persuasions.

The way he gets his start-up money is a comic gem. He advertises giant dildos (of which he has only one) in a sleazy newspaper, banks all the cheques and postal orders he receives, then mails to everyone who has sent money in refund cheques with the words Giant Dildo Refund stamped on them. ‘Can you honestly imagine,’ he says, ‘anyone toddling down to their bank to lodge a cheque that has Giant Dildo Refund stamped all over it? Isn’t capitalism wonderful?’ Chuckie’s best friend is Jake Jackson, a Catholic, who since childhood has slept with his windows open because he finds the nightly sound of the helicopters hovering overhead lulls him to sleep. Ditched by his English girlfriend (she hated the helicopters), Jake, a reformed hard man, directionless at 30, scuffles a living while looking for a new love.

Although non-political, Jake can’t ignore the random violence and the politics all around him. It impinges even when he just goes for a drink in his favourite drinking haunt he can’t work out how to be with a couple of bouncers. With one he’s scared of being too Catholic, with the second of not being Catholic enough.

Wilson’s particular strength is in his characterisations. They include Max, the love of Chuckie’s life who came to Belfast to avoid the violence in America, and her fanatically republican friend Aoirghe, humiliated by the fact her last name, bathetically, is Jenkins. Even Ripley Bogle makes a cameo appearance.

Wilson finds much to amuse us in the political rivalries of Belfast. The mysterious appearance on walls, paving stones and phone boxes of the letters OTG causes panic in the world of bully boys since nobody knows what they stand for. Puzzling that out is one of the incidental pleasures of the book.

He has a lot of fun with the Gaelic-language fanatics, satirising people with unpronounceable names saying unpronounceable things. On a business tour of America, Chuckie tries to be the good Irishman by talking what he claims is Gaelic until some Star Trek fan points out it sounds remarkably like the Klingon for ‘phasers locked and ready, Captain’.

But that doesn’t mean Wilson doesn’t take the Troubles seriously. He demonstrates compassion through dispassion when he describes in sober detail the horrors of a bomb exploding in a sandwich bar, providing moving biographies of the people torn apart (literally) by it.

Here, and in a brief section discussing Belfast as an entity, Wilson briefly shifts narrative gear. He narrowly avoids portentousness to talk affectingly about the city in which: ‘... the stories are jumbled and jangled. The narratives meet. They clash, they converge or convert. They are a Babel of prose.’ Otherwise, Wilson has a pleasurably flexible, easy-going narrative style. Eureka Street is very funny but that isn’t all. At the start of it, Jake is ‘thrillingly ecumenical’, and this novel is ecumenical, too ecumenical with the truths the competing political parties offer and satirically cynical of them all.

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