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1970s Dublin in Kennedy's latest novel

Wednesday, 27th March, 2019 10:53am

Story by David Burke
1970s Dublin in Kennedy's latest novel

Douglas Kennedy's new book disappoints slightly.

1970s Dublin in Kennedy's latest novel

Douglas Kennedy's new book disappoints slightly.

The Great Wide Open

By Douglas Kennedy


DOUGLAS Kennedy’s name was a familiar one in the newspapers here in the 1970s. He arrived in Dublin as a student from the USA and ended up writing for newspapers and at one stage running the Peacock Theatre, in the basement of the Abbey.

He was a good writer then, and is a very successful one now, having several best sellers to his credit. I can’t say I’ve read them all, but those I have I greatly enjoyed. I can think of The Dead Heart, a story of an outsider blundering into a very dodgy community in the middle of an Australian nowhere, The Big Picture, in which a man accidentally commits murder and bales out from his stifling suburban life in Connecticut using the identity of his victim, and The Woman in the Fifth, which turns out to be a ghost story.

In this, as in many of his novels, the hero is an outsider, a man whose previous life has collapsed in some dramatic way and who has to make his way in a new world.

For the man in The Big Picture it is a transition from sophisticated Connecticut to small town Montana; The Woman in the Fifth features a disgraced professor, again an American, down and out in Paris until he meets and falls in love with a mysterious woman.

For his latest novel, Kennedy makes his protagonist a woman. We first meet Alice Burns when she is working as a book editor for a New York publisher in the early 1980s, just as Ronald Reagan has been elected President.

But as the story goes rapidly into flashback around 1972, the suspicion soon arises that Alice is Douglas in drag.

Her father is Irish-American, her mother is Jewish, and she has two brothers.

The point of the book is signalled in the very first sentences, a quote from a book which Alice is immersed in editing:

“All families are secret societies. Realms of intrigue and internal warfare, governed by their own rules, regulations, boundaries, frontiers. Rules which often make no sense to those outside their borders.”

On the next page Alice is preparing for her weekly visit to her brother in prison — but of course we don’t know which brother it is, although by the time we reach the last hundred pages we have a pretty good idea.

During the visit, the brother confides to Alice the secret he has kept all his adult life. Two mysteries in the first nine pages: it’s as if the author doesn’t quite trust his reader to plough through the next 575 unless there is the bait of the big reveal at the end.

Which is not like the Douglas Kennedy we imagine, the debonair man of the world who has sold umpteen million books, who has been decorated in France for services to literature and divides his time between various desirable locations.

For the rest of the book we accompany Alice through territory that is familiar even if we have not grown up on the East Coast of the USA. Even the family tensions are predictable.

She is one of the outsiders in high school, despises the sports stars and their adoring female cheerleaders, and hangs out with other intellectually minded more or less weird friends whom we guess (rightly) that she will encounter later though luck or happenstance.

Alice goes to college at Bowdoin, a real liberal arts college in Maine, where, believe it or not, the author spent his undergraduate years. Having already experienced the suicide of one of her high school friends, she is traumatised again when an associate takes his own life and in an attempt at emotional escape applies for a scholarship to study at Trinity College Dublin.

Douglas Kennedy studied there, so naturally his heroine makes the grade, and the middle third of the book is an evocation of Dublin in the 1970s. It’s all there, the grimy student flats, the incessant drinking of pints, the would-be poets and novelists, and like a grim backdrop to the drama the mayhem in the North.

The Troubles produce one (actual) event that marks another turning point in Alice’s life and she flies back home to where it all began, and following more adventures ends up as the book editor.

As her life story unfolds the history of America is interwoven with it: her father and brother are in Chile during the campaign to bring down Allende; she comes face to face with the AIDS plague as it creeps up like an assassin in the night on the gay community; and Wall Street and corporate America agree that greed is good.

I set aside time to read this much anticipated book properly, so it probably was inevitable that it would not live up to expectations. I enjoyed it, but I won’t put it on a re-read list as I would some of his other works.

Perhaps it’s because in a book in which the superior intelligence of the main characters is underlined in every section, there are howlers galore.

Early on the prison guard’s voice is “distended” in the intercom; Brendan Kennelly’s name is spelt incorrectly; a Dublin taxi-driver speculates on the future of the “Sinn Féin-Labour coalition government”; the heroine sits down “having been availed of a shower”; “tampered down” instead of “tamped”.

If the pedant in you can stand that kind of thing, it’s a good book for a long journey or a chill-out weekend.

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