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Mean Streets

Gerard Lee

The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney, John Murray, 384 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-1444798852

I freely confess myself a heretic in not having known of Lisa McInerney’s blog, Arse End of Ireland, before reading her debut, The Glorious Heresies. Although I came to this book as a novice, I finished it as a joyful convert.

I don’t know that I’ve ever read a better description of the insane passion of puberty and falling in love than McInerney gives in the opening paragraph:

He left the boy outside its own front door. Farewell to it, and good luck to it. He wasn’t going to feed it anymore; from here on in it would be squared shoulders and jaws, and strong arms and best feet forward. He left the boy a pile of mangled, skinny limbs and stepped through the door a newborn man … Karine D’Arcy was her name … And so the boy had to go, what was left of him, what hadn’t been flayed away by her hands and her kisses.

There’s great poetry, and a sense of pure hope and adventure captured in the description of stepping through the threshold from childhood innocence and into the promising expanse of adulthood and new experience. The image of the unformed man emerging from the pupa is both tender and funny. The Glorious Heresies is no romantic novel though, and McInerney quickly turns us down some grotty alleyways to where her real story lurks, dragging a spliff to the lip-burn and scrunching the last dregs from a can. Here are backwaters that corrupt everything and everyone that strays down them. You won’t find these mean rat-runs on Google Maps.

In contrast with the hopeful image of the emerging manhood of Ryan, a very much darker and far more toxic picture is presented of Una Phelan’s emerging sexuality:

There had never been a question of her choosing her gender over her church; she pandered to the vestments as if by debasing herself she could avoid the stain of her sex. Her own daughters she saw as treacherous vixens. Puberty marked their descent.

Condemned by gender: perhaps it is that notion of being condemned in the womb that created echoes for this reviewer of the Louis MacNeice poem “Prayer Before Birth”:

I am not yet born; O hear me,
Let not the man who is beast or who thinks he is God
come near me.

Beasts and men who think they are God roam the savage plains of McInerney’s story, and it’s often a difficult choice for her strays and struggling souls to decide who might offer cruelty, and who comfort, in this gallery of the unravelled and the schizoid. McInerney’s characters screw up, bang up and fuck up a lot. In the end they might seek to make some atonement, but atonement here costs, and even then it doesn’t guarantee salvation. It seems that the best any of them can hope for in their relationships is a kind of compatible dysfunction.

There are many kinds of prison: St Pat’s, the Magdalene Laundry, poverty, prostitution, addiction, violence. Even in religion there’s the prison of judgement:

Ryan had been right – their grace could only come from a pitying verdict.

But if they are downtrodden, McInerney’s characters also display all the bravery, tenacity and resilience of the human spirit. Maureen Phelan (might she be from the same gene-pool as the magnificent Girly Hartnett in Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane?) is not afraid of a challenge to the old patriarchy, and in the hallowed ground of the confession box, to boot; kick them where it hurts.

“The most natural thing in the world is giving birth; you built your whole religion around it. And yet you poured pitch on girls like me and sold us into slavery and took our humanity from us twice, a third time, as often as you could … No wonder you say Holy God is brimming with the clemency; for how else would any of you bastards sleep at night?”

Has confession ever been so cathartic, so liberating, dare I say it, so much fun?

There are a number of ways to hear a person’s confession; in The Glorious Heresies you may be kneeling, sure, but that’s where any similarity with the Catholic equivalent ends. In this world of the survival of the fittest, you’ll be kneeling on a sheet of tarpaulin, to facilitate the neat disposal of your post-confession remains. In McInerney’s skilful hands, a confession box is what you might get in the side of the head from your interrogator, to encourage you to remember your misdemeanours, and if you’re still having trouble reciting the Confiteor of the Blabber-Mouth, the barrel of a gun pushed into the back of your throat can be an excellent cure for amnesia. This is a ruthless and uncompromising world, and if you screw up you can expect no mercy. The seal of the confessional cannot be broken, but your jaw can be.

Though set in Cork, Lisa McInerney’s story is really a moveable feast; it will resonate with readers across Ireland and beyond, anywhere, in fact, where people recognise the dark odour of corruption, marginalisation, addiction, religious oppression, gender genocide (gendercide?), social exclusion and petty bureaucracy – anywhere people have been spat out by the uncaring ravages of capitalism. The city is full of casual brutality and pain, and McInerney doesn’t flinch from describing it all. She fiercely resists the creeping acceptance of the marginalised human as detritus, shining her light on the routine dehumanisation of the individuals who have fallen through the cracks, the people who didn’t manage to secure a seat on the Free Market Gravy Train, and couldn’t find salvation in the lifeline of the brown scapular that was thrown to haul them out of the mire of indifference.

It’s not just characters who are interrogated in The Glorious Heresies – traditional notions of confession, redemption and rehabilitation are stripped naked and made to fess up too; in McInerney’s world, everything is up for re-evaluation.

The real sin for McInerney’s characters is the heresy of insisting on being human, hairy armpits, sloping waists and all. The Glorious Heresies is an exorcism on the dark heart of modern Ireland, a beautiful act of sabotage on the old order. Here’s hope, don’t shoot.

1/9/2015

Gerard Lee is an actor, writer and director. His novel Forsaken is published by New Island.

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