The Irish novelist Lisa McInerney is a preposterously gifted writer, Amis-like, almost Shakespearean, in her ability to riff, refresh and amuse. She is known for her former blog Arse End of Ireland (a reference to Cork city) and for her debut novel, The Glorious Heresies, which received the 2016 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction as well as a stack of reviews that could have been written by her agent. The Blood Miracles, despite a more cumbrous, less fist-waving title, is similar in style and shape and resumes the hairy adventures of Ryan Cusack, a junior gangster with a feckless dad, a dead Italian mum, a handful of little-seen siblings and a long-term girlfriend, Karine, a trainee nurse whose capacity for long-sufferingness has just about reached its limit.
Ryan is now 20, still working for Dan Kane, a local kingpin, and still harbouring dreams of a musical life that he has neither the time nor the headspace to pursue. His fluent Italian has helped secure a fresh supply of Ecstasy and a new “route” (Salerno to Ringaskiddy). But after the pills arrive, Dan’s girlfriend, doing the pick-up, is robbed on her way back to Cork. Dan suspects one of his lieutenants but decides that the best course of action is to do nothing, just let him sweat until he cracks. Ryan doesn’t care too much – he isn’t a partner in the deal – and anyway he’s busy, setting up Dan’s new nightclub Catalyst, paying visits to an elderly mystic (whose identity we know but he doesn’t) and rebounding from Karine’s censure into the arms of Natalie, a middle-class accountant, recently returned from a 24th-birthday jaunt in Shoreditch, and a product of “glossy, artsy, vibrant Cork” with oddly deep connections to the city’s lowlife.
In a prose light on commas but with a surprising taste for the semi-colon, as vivid at capturing sensory phenomena as conveying a quirk of thought, and offering a full-dress display of just about every type of metaphor from the sublime to the annoying, McInerney immerses the reader in Ryan’s world. Post-crash Cork, at least in this version, has as much in common with the Detroit of Elmore Leonard (sunny, silly) as the LA of James Ellroy (sulky, jittery), and similar debts to the Dublin of Joyce (mythic, pun-strewn) and Roddy Doyle (given to fatalism yet hopping with high spirits). Her virtuosity functions all along the scale. The novel opens with a five-chapter dash, the first sentence (“This, like so many of Ryan Cusack’s fuck-ups, begins with Ecstasy”) being answered 58 – closely printed – pages later. But she can fit a sex scene into the gap between sentences: “His compassion proved quite the aphrodisiac. Afterwards they had a smoke.”
A potential pitfall of a novel of this sort is a recurrent lurching from literary polish to rough-hewn vernacular, from the urbane to the streetwise. McInerney’s answer is to aim constantly for a mix of tones and registers. The effect is neither look-at-me juxtaposition, in the Saul Bellow manner of needing to appear equally at home in the gutter and the ivory tower, nor the mock-heroic deployed to the ends of mockery: the way that Ian McEwan writes “The master of the house was at his ablutions” to describe a builder taking a shower. It’s something more organic, more naturally democratic, as if McInerney finds equal value in all the available resources. “Sentinels” is a helpful word, but so are “blokey” and “jackeen”. “Fuck” isn’t too bad either.
There’s a thematic underpinning to the regime of fizz and dazzle. In this fantasy Ireland, language functions as a code, a currency, a kind of action. There is talk of “vocabulary” and “terminology”, of “Ryan’s tongue”, his “smart mouth”, the “lip” he has on him. Usage comes under scrutiny. The mot juste is worth scouring for. Accused of softness, he announces: “I’m not soft. Just . . . raised right.” As McInerney distinguishes a “thud” from a “drier clatter”, so Ryan, defining the criminal enterprise, rejects “this life” and “this business” and settles on “this thing”. When Karine says that Ryan’s fling with Natalie shows a reluctance to tug his own prick, he replies, “If that’s how you want to put it.” How he wants to put it is that he wasn’t aware of any “moratorium”. At one point he is saved by his “language skills”, at another by someone else’s “way with words”.
McInerney’s writing never patronises the milieu, but the perspectival dynamic is frequently at risk of doing so. In Ryan, the “gangster”, his persona, jostles with the “musician”, his true self. In one painful exchange he is stripped of his DJing gig at Catalyst because he is needed for more pressing business: “Time to put away the toys,” Dan tells him. Ryan the boyfriend, the lover, is caught in the middle, torn between poles. Karine, who rails against his life with Dan and who, for Christmas, gives him a book (Sound and Silence: a Human Obsession), notes that in Natalie Ryan has found a girl for whom the gangster side has appeal. No wonder he’s willing to give her a chance. She won’t test him. He can give up with somebody’s blessing.
Karine seems to be his conscience or foil, a walking bullshit detector, but her comments reinforce the idea of Ryan as a man apart, spiritually superior to his schoolmates and colleagues, pensive and neurotic where other Corkonians seem reflexive and unthinking. Much of the novel is concerned with the discovery of a lost piano – Ryan’s Rosebud – and we are left in no doubt that he would have got his school Leaving Certificate if he hadn’t been expelled for bad behaviour.
There was a similar strategy behind Ben Fountain’s 2012 novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, another spectacular feat of prose, in which, by some mysterious (and very recent) process, Billy, an army specialist, has ceased to be an average grunt like the rest of Bravo Squad and has traded hedonism, homophobia and a head-in-the-clouds temperament for a sort of wired lucidity, a sixth sense for the nature of things that Fountain, keeping things necessarily vague, called “a farther perspective”. As an attempt to explain the grandeur of the writing it doesn’t go nearly far enough. A more likely motive is that it provides a short cut to high stakes, a feeling that all this matters because we are dealing with someone who transcends his social status, not some ordinary soldier or pusher.
But in contrast to Fountain, who cleaved to his mild transcendentalist programme, his American image of the outlier with a destiny, McInerney succeeds in generating some distance from Ryan’s exalted vision of his own potential. At one point he reflects that the bad-boy stories he feeds Natalie are just “dick-clutching fantasies”. Invoking such notions as “brotherhood, loyalty, hierarchy” is just something he does to deflect the “meaningless” reality of “moving around all day, scared shitless, talking shite” as a form of security, a way to stay sane. Then McInerney tugs the rug, showing Ryan’s comforting moment to be just so much self-deception, his confidence in being a better person dwarfed by the fact that the pill-peddling and shite-talking constitute his life. The bears are already inside, she writes, “picking their teeth by the fire”.
This article appears in the 10 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why the Tories keep winning