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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Irish Confederacy

Robert McLiam Wilson's novel "Eureka Street" is a novel set in Belfast during the latter days of The Troubles. It centers around the lives of Jake, a lapsed Catholic, and Chuckie, an unenthusiastic Protestant, who are close friends despite their differing denominations. Jake is going through a rough patch, having just lost a long-time girlfriend and unable to find fulfilling work, while Chuckie begins an unexpected and hilarious ascent to prominence after wasting his first thirty years on Earth.

The novel is a satire on the all-too-serious (and shockingly deadly)in which people from Nothern Ireland live their daily lives. McLiam Wilson spares no one from ridicule, from the committed Republican woman with a ridiculous Irish name (Aoirghe, which Jake says sounds like someone coughing, to the various committees set up to expand ecumenical activities but which only line the pockets of scam artists like Chuckie. Even America is mocked; one of the ways Chuckie makes his fortune is to sell Irish knick-knacks (including twigs he paints gold and markets as "leprechaun walking sticks) to third-generation Irish-Americans who have no idea what Ireland is really like.

Jake Jackson narrates his sections of the novel (the ones devoted to Chuckie are in the third person) and the love he feels for his city shines through his weariness at the violence and the certainty of true believers like Aoirghe, with whom he trades insults quite viciously. Jake's love for the remarkably imperfect Belfast reflects the author's obvious love of his own hometown.

In many ways this novel reminded me of A Confederacy of Dunces (hence the title of this post.) Chuckie especially is reminiscent of Ignatius J. Reilly due to his portliness and surprising success with a beautiful woman, and McLiam Wilson treats Belfast much in the same way Toole treated New Orleans. Both novels feature many memorable minor characters, whose stories intertwine in various interesting ways as the novel draws to a close. (The best minor character in this story is Roche, a foul-mouthed 12-year-old street-child who makes it almost impossible for anyone to want to help him.)

I'll give it 8.5 out of 10.

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