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The Valparaiso Voyage

By Dermot Bolger

Dermot Bolger’s eighth novel concerns Brendan Brogan, Navan man and compulsive gambler, who was banished to the shed at the bottom of the garden at the age of eight to become the Hen Boy, when his widowed father, a local planning officer on the County Council and a Fianna Fail lackey, remarries a ‘bit of hot stuff’, as I believe the parlance was back in the bad old days of unreconstructed unenlightenment. His new wife, Phyllis, brought with her her son from a previous marriage (official version) or, to use more of the then current argot, her bastard (unofficial but much less doubtful), Cormac, who inadvertently usurped Brendan’s place in the house, caught as the two young boys were in the domestic crossfire between husband and wife, and the wider politics of the school playground. This brought them into contact with Pete Clancy, the bullying son of Barney Clancy, the local FF chieftain and chancer, for whom Brendan’s father Eamonn acted as faithful retainer and bagman.

Now Brendan is back, in the frenetic new Dublin (and new Navan) of Celtic Tiger toys and gadgets, extortionate house prices, conscience-salving but equally self-serving tribunal investigations, and those ‘sponging’ asylum seekers (as a real life FF TD recently had it), ten years after faking his own death in a train crash in Scotland, to escape gambling debts and provide for his wife Miriam and son Conor, out of the compensation and insurance settlements. He falls in with Ebun, a Nigerian woman whom he rescues from a racist attack, while trying to tie up loose ends that are still unravelling from Channel Island bank accounts that his father had set up for Clancy Senior in the names of his own children and grandchildren. This brings him into renewed contact with Brogan Junior, now a Junior Minister himself, and his unsavoury builder henchmen, also the sons of his father’s cronies.

This is an extremely well-plotted literary thriller, which even ends with an extended shoot out. Bolger is skilled at mixing the wider socio-political context with a more private family history, and his book is a timely corrective to all the nauseatingly smug, self-congratulatory, self-satisfied Celtic Tiger shite that has been stuffed down everyone’s throat for the past few years. However, while there are few things more pleasing, at base level, in a true Irishman’s life than seeing hick Fianna Fail hacks getting it in the neck, there is always the danger that any artistic production which features same will degenerate into A State of the Nation summary and sermon by author. Gustave Flaubert wrote that it would give Gustave Flaubert enormous personal relief to unburden himself of his political opinions in his novels, but then added, ‘But what is the importance of said gentleman?’ And Louis MacNiece listed one of his problems with returning to Ireland, in Section XVI of Autumn Journal, as ‘Your assumption that everyone cares/Who is the king of your castle.’ References to real life figures such as Charles Haughey and Brian Lenihan and my namesake, whom I have to tirelessly point out each time I am introduced to someone new, as I have had to do for the past five years, is NO RELATION, can pale after awhile, and become journalistic. Then again, as Bolger would doubtless argue, perhaps politics is too important to be left to the politicians, or even the journalists.

What is striking, though, is that it is when Bolger is concentrating on the more personal and intimate details of his central character’s life, and his tangled, fraught and emotionally ambivalent relationships with his prevaricating father, with the insecure Phyllis, with the gay Cormac, and the equally gay Conor, that the writing hits its truest and most resonant stride, and mines a deep seam of feeling. Maybe it is impossible to separate the personal from the political, and political anger and grief and public moral complexity and duplicity are just as worthy of exploration as the personal varieties, if only because one can impact on and influence the other so much. But I’d still just as soon leave the many rotten apples of The Republican Party to decompose in their own barrel, especially in comparison with focusing on the returned revenant Brendan confronting the familial legacy of his father’s weakness, the consequences of his terminally ill stepmother’s survival instinct, and the ambivalence and strength of his feelings towards the man who turns out to be his half-brother, and towards his abandoned wife and son.

First published in Books Ireland



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