Belfast-born Paul McVeigh is a director of the London Short story festival, Associate Director of the Word Factory Short Story Salon and hosts an invaluable blog listing competition-and-submission opportunities for writers of all types. His voice is well-known and immediately recognisable in the online world of short story writing and promotion, and his immaculately written, broadcast story on BBC Radio four reduced me to tears.
So, although I don’t know Paul McVeigh, when he mused a few months ago that a photo of a mural on a bombed-out, derelict shell of an apartment block in war-torn Syria reminded him of home, I thought I knew him well enough to respond “Surely, you exaggerate?”
McVeigh’s debut novel The Good Son (Salt publishing, April 2015) is a triumph of vivid recall, a wrenching-off of the protective scabs that I, and many like me, have allowed to grow over the wounds of an upbringing in the sectarian streets of Northern Ireland during the Troubles. With a good dose of survivor guilt, and a shame-faced glance in the direction of IS and Boko Haram, we mutter to ourselves, “It wasn’t really that bad.” The Good Son is a swift and savage reminder that for so many of my countrymen and women, it really was that bad and there is little need for exaggeration.
The Good Son is so much more than a coming-of-age story. It’s a finely delineated depiction of a brutal and brutalising environment, rotten with machismo, creaking under various layers of patriarchal oppression, whether Governmental, societal or domestic. As always, the women are grinding away, making-do, trying to glue the world back together while the centre fails to hold. The dialogue, in particular, is exquisite, every nuance and rhythm perfectly cadenced, the tribal music of a society wherein the incorrect pronunciation of a word, or even a letter, marks you out as alien, suspect, not-like-us. In Belfast, to be not-like-us, can be a death sentence.
I couldn’t help sniggering with vicious schadenfreude at the hapless exploits of a young, idealistic youth worker volunteer from Italy, who thinks he can make everything alright again, with a football and a day-trip on a bus, until he encounters a gang of loyalist thugs, wielding lengths of two-by-four. It reminded me so clearly of being attacked after a “community” event on Bastille Night, in a disadvantaged suburb of Paris, with ten other, hopelessly at-sea Northern Irish youngsters who had been sent there to experience “integration” by the well-meaning volunteers at The Spirit of Enniskillen community organisation. As the boys in the bus on their way out of Ardoyne carefully check each other’s clothing for telltale symbols and allegiances, and the Italian and the bus driver quake in their seats, I remembered running full-pelt through the streets of France, with my bleeding and shaken friends, and I didn’t feel such a fool anymore — other people made the same mistakes.
Like Mickey Donnelly, the eponymous good son, all I ever wanted was to educate my way out of Northern Ireland, and never come back. Watching Mickey settle into the knowledge that his drunken father will never leave the family financially secure enough to allow Mickey to accept his scholarship place at St Malachy’s Grammar School (where my cousins were educated) was a deeply depressing experience. Mickey fits nowhere, neither with the boys nor with the girls, headed by Briege McNally, a perfect depiction of diabolical power and generalised misanthropy. Only in the company of his beloved dog, Killer, can Mickey be sure of unconditional love. Even his best friend and little sister finally capitulates to the social norms and ostracises her clever, sensitive brother. Being clever and sensitive in the Ardoyne, is not a great career move.
The long, hot, dangerous summer grinds to an end, and the book appears to be grinding towards a melodramatic, overcooked ending, but is rescued in the final chapters by an act of genius.
Highly recommended. Watch out for Paul McVeigh.