Once upon a time I was on a long plane flight and an “Irish” film came on. OK, it was more Oirish than Irish: The Matchmaker, a fish out of water story wherein an uptight American (Janeane Garofalo) goes hunting for Irish ancestry in a tiny village in Ireland, and arrives right in the middle of the annual matchmaking festival. It’s exactly the broad collection of stereotypes and blarney that you might expect, but contained one absolutely hilariously true moment for me. Halfway through the film, the main characters are trying to stop and old man on the Aran Islands from pelting them with rocks (don’t ask, don’t ask…). The man is yelling at them in Irish and the American tells her guide to say something to him in Irish to make him stop. Like most Irish men, her guide hasn’t used a word of Irish since school, so he resorts to the one phrase every Irish person knows: “An bhfuil céad agam dul go dtí an leithreas.”
I cackled with laughter, causing all the people sitting nearby to jerk around and stare at me. (This being the days before individual seat-back TVs, everyone had to watch the same movie.) They had just long enough to wonder if this guy was losing it, and the flight attendants were just reaching for the panic button when the guide translated the phrase for the uptight American, and explained that in Ireland this is how you must ask to go the the bathroom when you’re in school, “otherwise you have to go in your pants.” It’s the one Irish phrase every Irish person knows. Everyone in the plane cracked up, and the flight attendants put the mace away.
I suspect the same lag-time between readers born and raised in Ireland and those not, will affect reactions to Julian Gough’s excellent novel, Jude: Level 1.
For the last year or more I’ve been laughing my arse off at the Twitter musings of Julian Gough, an Irish writer, musician, and sometimes sharp stick in the rhuemy eye of ye olde Oirish literary establishment. @JulianGough is one of the people who actually gets Twitter, managing to make it part performance, part honest commentary and part community. After a couple of years of “following” and occasional chatting, I began to feel vaguely guilty that I hadn’t read any of his novels.
Thanks to the wonderful Gutter Bookshop in Dublin, I got my paws on a copy of Jude: Level 1, Gough’s second novel, and it was everything his Twitter persona led me to expect: funny, irreverent and with plenty to say about the “real world” outside of the pages of the book.
In many ways, it seems a bit pointless to try to summarize the plot — it’s the classic case of boy leaves abusive Christian Brothers orphanage, boy falls in love with the first girl he sees, boy runs afoul of corrupt politicians/international arms smugglers/unscrupulous property developers and all hell breaks loose in his quest to find the girl again — because the whole point of a novel is to go along on an adventure for the first time, and many reviews just take the fun out of reading a book. A good novel should be a performance, an adventure, a memorable experience of getting from the first page to the last. (Of course, most aren’t: most are content to get from A to “Zee” via a well-ordered series of meticulously crafted sentences with just the right sprinkling of irony, untranslated foreign phrases and condescension, topped of with a black & white author photo, brainy glasses and a Brooklyn address.)
From the first page you have the impression that Julian Gough doesn’t give a toss about any of that preciousness, he just wants to tell a good story, make you laugh at the absurdity of it all, and if occasionally the joke falls flat or the cultural reference escapes you, the velocity of the story will carry you over these minor potholes like a teenager who’s finally been given the keys to his Dad’s car. Jude: Level 1 is a bravura performance of humor and satire that skewers blinkered Celtic Tiger thinking (and ignorant self-interest of any nationality), the good-old-boy network of Ireland/______ (fill in the blank with whatever nation you hail from), the abuses of the Catholic church and the cliches of coming-of-age tales like this one.
The book begins with a wonderful set-piece satire on worshipful party politics as practiced in Ireland until very, very recently (by which I mean that since the book was published the Irish people did indeed rise up and throw the feckers out — for quite how long they’ll be content to remain out remains to be seen). Our hero, freshly birthdayed 18-year-old orphan Jude escorts a group of younger orphans to a large political rally in rural Ireland. While there, he accidentally disgraces himself and causes the assembled slavering masses to burn down the orphanage in their frenzy to catch and punish him. Suffice to say, the memory of this opening section was making me crack up laughing at inappropriate moments for days afterwards.
Jude’s escape propels him to “the Sodom of the West: Galway City,” when he meets Angela, the girl of his dreams and resolves to win her heart. Mistaking her sarcasm for instructions, Jude believes that if he gets plastic surgery to look like Leonardo DiCaprico and becomes a millionaire she’ll love him forever. Hence he sets out on his quest to win her heart.
It’s possible that the perfect reader for this novel is a male born and raised in Ireland at the start of the 1970s. It may be that if he was not educated at a religiously segregated school, half the humor in the book will fall flat. The pop-cultural references might require him to have come of age in the ‘80s, and if he did not flee Ireland in the ‘90s he may feel the satire falls a little too close to home. But stifling religious dogma is stifling religious dogma regardless of creed, and political corruption and cronyism are endemic the world over, so I suspect readers will know exactly what Julian Gough’s writing about even if they don’t get the delicious humor behind the name Dan Bunne or understand why anointing Roy Keane, Gay Byrne and Dana as the three biggest Irish legends is one of the funniest asides in the book. Jude: Level 1 is a fast-paced, funny and occasionally savagely satirical read, and at worst, non-Irish readers will get the jokes just a beat behind everyone else.
The saga of Jude continues in Jude in London, which is being published just about now.
Update: There’s an “honor” edition where you can download a .pdf, read it, and pay afterwards. A brave experiement. Check it out…