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27 February 2019

Bloodlust in Belfast: David Keenan’s new novel of the Troubles

For the Good Times is a book that blasts into consciousness in Belfast in the 1970s, the era of the Troubles, of relentless sectarian violence and military occupation.

By Suzanne Moore

What a time for David Keenan’s second novel to drop, as the young people say. For the Good Times is a book that blasts into consciousness in Belfast in the 1970s, the era of the Troubles, of relentless sectarian violence and military occupation. This is the world in which Keenan chooses to remix history, to remember through reimaginings. He did this in a fashion with his first novel, This is Memorial Device, which turned the mundane into the mystical through a series of invented interviews with fans of a post-punk band in small-town Scotland. That book announced a voice that was unafraid to bring magical realism to Airdrie. Quite something.

At a time when this country cannot understand its own present because it has such a selective knowledge of the past – witness the stupefaction of arguing over the Irish border, which most people in the UK, including half the government, are entirely ignorant of – Keenan crawls inside history, heading straight to the heart of darkness.

Sammy and his mates are foot-soldiers for the IRA. They are vicious gangsters. They are kids. They are having a good time. They are sadistic killers living on adrenalin and comics dreaming of blow-jobs as much as a Free State. They idolise Perry Como, clean-cut and righteous, a gag that becomes more and more sad. These men are born in struggle and Samuel ends up in the Maze prison. Is his narrative a confession? Who is telling the truth? Nobody is who they appear to be.

In this novel Bobby Sands is dying on hunger strike. The death of Sands, somehow erased from the mainland’s memory, remains one of the most shocking events in my lifetime – yet we continue to speak of martyrdom as belonging only to far away or long ago. The Troubles remain manifestly troubling and are rich territory for those interested in alternative realities. This period of history is a labyrinth of denial, doublethink and ferocity.

Keenan uses all this to create an extraordinary tale of bloodlust and hyper-violence, weaving in Nietzsche, comic books, Aleister Crowley, thick Paddy jokes, religiosity, brilliant slang. One minute it’s drenched in the ominous dark-red tones of a Scorsese film, and then it flips into situationist hilarity. This movement between different worlds feels vertiginous at times, but the reader is soon earthed again with the description of a beating or an Irish joke.

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Like Anna Burns’s Milkman, Keenan’s novel is set in the Ardoyne, a working-class, Catholic area of Belfast. All the boys are slightly out of time. The 1970s were like that, with sudden shifts in culture, from long hair to short hair. Many were left behind and vengeful. The love for Como represents an idealised version of masculinity, smooth and clean, when in fact the boys’ own fathers are sick, dead, betrayed or barely visible. There was always more than one way to martyr oneself for the cause. Sammy kidnaps Kath, who ends up seducing him. The fantasy women of this novel are not to be trusted .

This twisted tale is propelled by huge imaginative energy, obliterating all resistance. Some of Keenan’s creations are wonderful: a character called Miracle Baby, for instance, is a sort of idiot savant whose name came from the headline about his birth. “Visionary” and “hallucinatory” are the words being used about this book, but I am not sure I agree. This is a novel about telling and retelling that is somehow absolutely real. It certainly has a myth-making intensity to it, but then isn’t this the experience of war?

Oral history that merges the esoteric with the everyday “feels” as true as reportage. I kept thinking of one of the best artistic explorations of the Troubles, Alan Clarke’s  Elephant (1989), a short film of numbing routine killing. Keenan chooses the opposite approach, pushing everything to excess and unashamed mysticism. His fearlessness is incendiary: hilarious, horrifying and then disturbingly ecstatic. Keenan is a new kind of historian who understands history is an act of creation, a performance. Occult, transformative, difficult, fantastic: Keenan is smashing through so many borders in this novel. It’s beyond savage. 

For the Good Times
David Keenan
Faber & Faber, 368pp, £12.99

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This article appears in the 27 Feb 2019 issue of the New Statesman, How Brexit broke politics