Cathy Unsworth, review of Nick the Revelator by Peter Murphy, in The Guardian (7 March 2009)

[ Cathi Unsworth finds shades of gospel blues and Nick Cave in an Irish music writer’s debut. ]

Born in a storm and named after the biblical son of thunder, John Devine is delivered into a world of mythology: smalltown Ireland. He begins his days eking out a frugal, rural existence, dominated by his charismatic chainsmoking mother, Lily, and their faintly sinister neighbours, the sharp-tongued Phyllis Nagle and “mutton-headed” Harry Farrell, alcoholic handyman. With only a Harper’s Compendium of Bizarre Nature Facts as distraction, John grows up an odd kid, nurturing an obsession with parasitic worms and nightmares about crows.

When black-clad Jamey Corboy turns up in the market square, midway through the sweltering summer of his 15th year, it finally seems that John has met a kindred spirit. Obsessed with Rimbaud and Verlaine, Corboy is a fellow outsider in the tightly knit community of Kilcody - his mother Dee serves tea in a Lady Di mug and his little brother Ollie suffers from fits. Possessed of a superior record collection and an ever-present notebook into which he scrawls his precocious interpretations of what is really going on beneath the God-fearing veneer of the town, Jamey offers John the novelties of friendship and deeper understanding. Lily at once forbids John from seeing him.

Yet like Corboy’s heroes, these misfit poets are destined to embark on an adventure that will reveal the truths of the world to their adolescent eyes. From the disappearance of a local asylum-seeker to the hormonal tension of the rugby-club disco, paradoxes unwind throughout the long, hot summer, Jamey growing more obsessive as Lily becomes more distant, the lines between what both are telling John and the reality of their situations blurring fast. After an intoxicated night of shocking desecration in the chapel leads to Jamey’s incarceration, John is left blinking in a cold new dawn. Trying to come to terms with the fact that his mother is dying, John extracts final revelations from her: the mystery of his origin and the enigma that is Lily.

An Irish music writer, Peter Murphy casts his debut novel like a blues noir, steeped in the music that has clearly inspired him. From the title, Blind Willie Johnson’s 1930 gospel call and response, he follows the path of Nick Cave’s 1985 Delta descent The Firstborn is Dead, with its shades of William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and Harry Crews. But this spook-filled Irish landscape, rendered with gouts of blood-red humour, is entirely his own.

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