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Too Much Too Soon

By Joe Ambrose

Joe Ambrose's second book is a disillusioned middle-aged trawl through youthful misadventure and folly, featuring a returned emigrant hero struggling, baffled, to comprehend a rapidly changed Ireland that has simply passed him by, since it has become pretty much like everywhere else. 'The nicer people I used to know have either accommodated themselves to the new consensus - gotten with the programme - or they've been brutally sidelined. Dublin has joined the international community of cities where intellectual life is a scary fringe activity and only money matters.' So opines Liam Crowe, Ambrose's fictional yet autobiographical alter ego (if such an entity is possible). So much of Ambrose's own background as the biographer of old IRA man Dan Breen and erstwhile contributor to In Dublin magazine (here changed to Anna Livia) has been incorporated into that of the central character, with the trusty fallback formulation 'thinly disguised' never more applicable. While he flatsits in the new Dublin, rewriting the Breen biography Against Tyrant's Might (this time retitled On The Run), Crowe recounts his formative years, most especially his close friendship with rebellious school buddy Rory Murray, who early got involved with subversive paramilitary activity, while Liam was busy hanging out with the People's Voice Trotskyites at UCD. Much of the book consists of Irish History According To Joe Ambrose, and Sean MacBride even puts in an appearance as an interviewee. Alas, much of it is also not terribly well written, way too general in its pronouncements (even if they reinforce prejudices this reader would broadly share with the author), and depends on the audience being told what to think, or what the writer who is directly identified with the central character thinks, as opposed to being shown through scenes, where ideas and problems might be dramatised and ventilated through character interaction and incident. Of course, it could be argued that the latter methodology can be just as polemical, if a little less direct, as the former one, especially if the characters are just there to represent different types who would hold the standard views of their particular type on a broad range of issues and topics. Still, monologues have to be more imaginative than this, and take on the macabre singularity of some of the rants of that stalwart of outlaw literature, William Burroughs, with whom Ambrose has himself worked, to avoid coming off as mere reportage, and descending to the journalistic. Rory comes to a bad end, taking up with the wrong sort of woman who is not-quite-his-class-dear, and then goes quietly psychotic when she leaves him to return to her former husband. He plans to murder her, but the attempt goes badly wrong, and he falls into the hands of the law. He dies by his own hand while on bail, after psychiatric breakdown. As Liam has it, 'Like many a good revolutionary before him, Rory's attention drifted when sex became available on a regular basis.' On the positive side, the redeeming feature of this tome is that, like Pat McCabe to cite another example, Ambrose has an intimate knowledge and deep appreciation of popular and counter culture from the 60s to the 90s, that is more than just an occasional but ill-understood designer reference. It's nice to read a book by an Irish author who actually knows who The MC5 and Richard Hell and The New York Dolls actually are, and who doubtless owns some of their vinyl too. Indeed, the title of The Dolls' first album provides Ambrose with his title here. Rory, like a couple of founder members of that mid-70s band of transvestite Rolling Stones parodists, died of getting Too Much Too Soon. If only he'd gotten more into music than violent nationalist politics, and Ambrose had done likewise in this book, he might have increased his chances of survival, and we would have had a more entertaining read. The politics of dancing has always been a more pleasurable avenue to pursue than the politics of killing people.

First published in Books Ireland



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