“My name is Robbie Goulding. I was once a musician. For five years in the 1980s I played guitar with The Ships.”
I gave my first copy to my daughter in New York who is into her music. The second copy was grabbed by my partner. The cover is slick with raised chords on a guitar, very cute, very proud, very wannit.
You might think rock’nroll is a good enough parody of itself but the opening pages here have O’Connor sending it up beyond even its wildest, loudest riffs. This is a rare thing a funny novel, gut bustingly funny, laugh out loud, snigger and snitch – funnier than anything else I have written about on here. Humour is more difficult than drama and pain, obviously, but joyous when you find it like this. O’Connor takes a deep breath and just lets it rip out through his second in command Robbie, would be number two to the elegant, bisexual, made-up, cross dressing Vietnamese orphan Fran. In Luton. (and we have yet to meet the gorgeous Trez who walks into their “scum-speckled swamp of dilettantism“). It has been shortlisted for the Bollinger, Wodehouse, Everyman Comic Novel of 2014 which sounds like a joke itself (but apparently is real enough).
From the start we have our own new language…of “slobberments, shitehawks, drollery, lottery-spittle, pangsious, burbles…the Catholic chaplain was cottage cheese on legs”.
And lexiconically explained so “a person who takes his relatively small suffering far too seriously” is a wilbur, after William Butler Yeats.
And we get a lesson in PLOs, being People Like Ourselves ie who do not drink coffee. This is Luton 1980, and being of an age I can recall such places, such prejudices, where sharing a cup of tea meant having a family history and asking for the black stuff was to be up yourself. When Rob fails his exams he is sent by his zoo keeper father to shovel flamingo shit, literally…
Linguistically this is marvellous stuff. There is an amazing 12 page lambasting of layabout sons by an Irish father that straddles generations, countries and petty seething prejudices which goes down as one of the greatest rants in literature (that I have read) or in this case might be deemed a Dylan-esque Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands. “Jimmy’s head…was by now a hellacious shade of red that no English adjective could describe. Ensanguined and fierce, it was redness itself.”
I will just give you the opening of the boys’ audition for a drummer. “We saw thrashers, smashers, belters, welters, thudderers and twelve cymbal jazz boys. Groovers, whimpers, rinky dink stompers…” etc for the best part of a page.
O’Connor attacks this riotous text with the rhythm and energy of that drum beat – more Ramones or Sex Pistols – and rampant screaming guitar solos, so it becomes a rock’n’roll anthem all to itself, a totally believable fantasy of the cool. And he still manages to slip a bit of social commentary between the licks.
After all, it takes a certain amount of insane courage to spend your last pennies in New York on a Stratocaster guitar.
Of course you might say it is a bit of a boy’s book, or a book for men of a certain age to which I completely fess up but can testify to the veracity and accuracy of the mood. It was like that and this is an appropriate epitaph to 70 years of boys with guitars.
The momentous ending feels a shade hurried (“hurry up there, Joseph, you promised it would be finished ages ago”) and I would take issue with the writing of the reportage interviews which seem a little too Luton Evening Post and not sufficiently New Musical Express (which was the repository of all the best music journalism at the time). Otherwise, great stuff. A riot.