Books: Smarties versus anchovies

Sudden Times by Dermot Healy Harvill pounds 15.99
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The Independent Culture
Dermot Healy may hail from Sligo and look like a Celtic poet from ancient days, but he has no truck with the more sentimental side of the mystic Irish twilight. His inspiration comes from building sites and supermarket jobs, shabby flats and the lure of an uneventful life when all else is fractured and split. His last novel, A Goat's Song, described the breakdown of a love affair; his memoir, The Bend For Home, dealt with his mother's Alzheimer's; and a play, The Long Swim, was also about the illness. His new novel continues the theme of disintegration: of a mind, a memory, a life.

Sudden Times tells the tale of Ollie Ewing, whose nerves are shattered: "You're not well. Next thing is you're standing in Saint Columba's in your pyjamas talking some bollocks about the phallus and chewing something to bring you down." Ollie's life went askew when he left Sligo for London to work as a casual labourer. While he was there, his best friend Marty was killed; his acid-eaten body was found in the back of his delivery lorry. And then his younger brother Redmond was burnt in a petrol attack at a party. In Ollie's mind, both events are connected with the menacing figure of Silver John, who, Ollie believes, runs a protection racket on the building sites and is out to get him. Even Sligo is no longer safe: "I thought my own shadow ahead of me on the road was someone coming, but there was no one, not this time anyway." Ollie can't forget what happened, but he can't quite remember it either.

This dilemma is captured in the structure of the novel. Ollie's monologue is broken down into little blocks of text, each with its own heading: "Chef Sauce", "Cartoon Sounds", "Fuckers". These fragments function as small, self-contained plays, each with its own language. The words move from the rushed hum of Ollie's mania: "That night they talked parachuting flying coasting planes jets the speed of light paradiving the force of gravity Dunnes stores black holes ley lines mental telepathy sonic booms suicide", to the quiet sadness of his regret: "The music continued. It was strange to listen to a band with no one dancing. In front of us was this long empty floor, this long empty wooden floor and windows that gave on to the Atlantic."

Ollie's account is unreliable, but the reader becomes immersed in his view of the world. It's impossible not to be touched by the poignancy, desperation and joy, and the mess of Ollie's mind.

The novel is dark, but glints with humour. Healy has a way with conversations, overheard dialogues and recounted stories that is spare and gloriously funny. He can make you laugh out loud with his rendition of the ordinary. A tea-break story told to Ollie on the roof of the supermarket by one of the checkout girls has him "in bits". Me too: "Well this Dolly-Anne with a full trolley comes to the counter for rashers. `Give me Smarties,' shouts her son. `And I'll have a pizza with anchovies,' she adds. `Smarties,' he roars. `I like anchovies,' she says, as if the child wasn't there. `If you don't get me Smarties,' he says, loud enough for his voice to carry the length of the counter, `I'll tell everyone that you had Daddy's mickey in your mouth this morning.'" It's a perfect scene, a glimpse of the domestic, sparking out from the surreal unease of other sections of the novel.

Sudden Times is an adventure in language and perception, but it's not the worthy, boring stuff of experimental novels; instead Healy has created a strange, ordinary world where bad things happen. It's stark and funny and fine.