Friday, September 7, 2007

John Kelly's "Sophisticated Boom-Boom": Review

Posted to Amazon US today in edited form. William Gibson recommended this in summer 2003 as a light read, and it lives up to that, filling my commute today. Professor Cheryl Herr mentioned this 2003 novel in her IASIL lecture two months ago in Dublin, "Stories for Boys," but all I caught was Horslips in concert for the twelve-year old narrator at a jamboree held at to me the unlikely grounds of "Mt Mellary [sic] in County Waterford." Any reader of Joyce's "Grace" will recall the rumor repeated here of the monks who sleep in their coffins, if not that about living high on the fatted calf there and skipping away without paying for your spartan room & board while on the mend from demon rum. The band plays at Jamborama '77 and gains mention elsewhere on occasion, if not as much as Thin Lizzy, whose Phil Lynott proves the icon of Celtic myth and bad-boy pose that Horslips, in what Kelly labels as being a "glam" band, could not sustain as the decade shifted from prog to punk.

This shift, as the perfectly positioned protagonist and stand-in for the author Declan Lydon (symbolically resonant, surprised he does not have Shane as his middle name) shows, gives the power of living as a teen within the North of Ireland who finds his escape from Fermanagh's 365 lakes and market-town stultification. My half-hour layover at the woebegone bus station in Enniskillen was plenty. The ennui of being twelve and suspicious of pasta or vegetarianism or wine or sex or jogging as dubious fads expresses well how little had changed since Joyce. Small wonder the boy and his pal Spit Maguire gravitate towards former Portora Old Boy Sam Beckett, if not so much Oscar Wilde, both of whom attended the posh school outside of their hometown decades earlier in the times Joyce described and which echo here, amidst profaner utterances, the blare of TV and disco, and more violent times.

The book, however, is more a series of brief vignettes than a coming of age "bildungsroman." It does not strive to be "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," sure, but the casualness with which Kelly writes, probably honed by long years as one of Ireland's most prominent music journalists and radio personalities (also provider of a fine show on the Aer Lingus in-flight channel), does undermine his thinly disguised fictional "how I grew up in a small town" genial tale's sporadic strengths. Kelly's excellent at summarizing the links between old legends, the ballads like "On Lough Erne's Shore," and his own enlightenment that Horslips, Lizzy, punk, and Dylan all could get along on his turntable. At the end, he grows up and finds that Cohen & Costello prove more fitting gurus for his maturer reflections than metal or rawk.

He shows how the "bubble" lived in during the mid-80s by himself and his student peers at Queen's U. in Belfast provides a sane alternative to the mayhem all around. Van Morrison, Philo, and a showband C&W meets West Ulster phonetically rendered Seamie Sheridan all enter briefly their spotlights. The narrator learns to listen to Coltrane and the Delta blues with sophistication, and while he fails to match as often such suavity in his dealings with young women, the stability that music gives Lydon-Kelly despite his amateurish bands fake (The Children of Prague as the provincial counterpart of The Virgin Prunes) and real offers insight into how a critical respect for music develops for the many who will never find fame on stage.

The difficulty is that the quick pace, the leisurely asides, and the fragmented chapters (despite great quotes taken from Kelly's real-life interviews with musicians) all detract from his overall presentation. Like his real-life autobiography, the intriguingly titled "Cool About the Ankles," (1997) and his sub-Flann O'Brien caper "The Little Hammer," (2003) in which Planxty's piper Liam Og O'Flynn becomes along with Phil L the narrator's obsession. This latest novel repeates his rather random array of musings, akin to his hit-and-miss sketches (filed in UCD's library under "humour") in "Grace Notes & Bad Thoughts" (1994). Much of the weakness of his other three books repeats here, in the slapdash mix of sporadic depth and topical superficiality. Perhaps unavoidable given the shelf-life of much he writes about, but an author needs greater care in setting out his wares. The misspelling of Mount Melleray provides a telling example of Kelly's lack of care. The glitter's all piled up here, as at a garage sale, and we have to paw through the tawdry and dusty to extract the treasure.

He offers grand craic once in a while-- as in a reverie about the French if they had won in 1798 to turn Hibernia into "Irlande Erotique"-- but you have to endure long detours and enter cul-de-sacs or blind alleys more often than not before finding a way out into the bantering pause that refreshes. But, here's one, contrasting Spit & Declan's learning of Lynott's death by drugs in 1986 with their "only previous exposure" when...

"someone called Billy Chemicals came to the school to warn us of the danger and told us how he had wasted his youth taking every drug he could get his hands on-- impressing upon us the foolishness of throwing away our lives partying.

"Some fuckin' chance of that! groaned Spit." (101)

As he's but four years younger than me, I confess despite growing up half a globe away, the Catholic school dance, the hours spent spinning vinyl, the utterly fanatical distrust of somebody with the wrong hair style or worse the wrong taste in music, and the slow realization that you grow up along with your record collection all made for moments of "epiphany." While I may not find that moment in Coltrane's "My Favorite Things" as Kelly-Lydon has, I know where it lurks. At least our protagonist, like me and his real-life doppelganger, relate Joyce to our wonderfully silly, delightfully trashy, but ultimately rewarding popular music and our shared love and wish to perpetuate the best of our innovative, fluctuating, determinedly raucous and thoughtfully slagging native culture.

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