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The Little Hammer

By John Kelly

John Kelly is well-known and justly praised as a television and radio presenter, and a writer on matters musical, who has an obvious passion and near encyclopaedic knowledge of his subject. I am a fan of his nightly RTE Radio 1 programme, Mystery Train (and admired its precursor on what was then Radio Ireland), was a regular viewer of the generally excellent television popular cultural review he fronted, Later with John Kelly (sadly gone the way of all TV arts programmes at Montrose, in the national broadcaster’s incessant quest for audience figures that will keep the advertisers happy - ‘RTE: Supporting The Arts’ indeed), and enjoy his column in The Irish Times every Saturday. Not content with brightening up our lives in these capacities, he has now produced his debut novel. So, can he write it like he talks it? Is it any good?

The Little Hammer concerns an unnamed narrator, a painter from Kelly’s own Co Fermanagh, who killed a palaeontologist with a geological hammer when he (the unnamed etc., that is) was nine years old. The motivation or significance of this incident is never fully revealed, although it transpires that this chap’s family, presided over by a grotesque Granny, is no stranger to murder in its ranks. What plot there is kicks in with the appearance of Ingrid Bergman lookalike Billie Maguire, a production assistant for Firecracker Films, run by the execrable Clive Ratcliff aka The Cockroach, who persuades our narrator to take part in an autobiographical film. Thing is, the entire film is a complete fabrication, and entails their decampment to Prague, where said narrator was a student (not). Suddenly all the stuff we’ve had to wade through about his Granny’s devotion to The Lives of The Saints and The Child of Prague becomes relevant. Billie kidnaps the original Child, substitutes it with an appropriately attired Action Man, and sends it to the Granny. Our narrator does his damnedest to rectify this situation, even writing to the Pope, and Shirley Temple. There is also a cameo by Elvis Presley.

Trouble is, the whole is less than the sum of the parts. The book could most generously be described as ‘episodic’, but quite a few chapters seem to be included for no apparent reason, and bear very little relation to what goes before or comes after them. So while it is comic in places (I particularly liked the description of charismatics as ‘the acoustic guitar wing of the Roman Catholic Church and I didn’t like the look of them’.), it reads very much like a lucky dip hotchpotch, thrown together. In a recent ‘My Writing Day’ column in The Irish Times, Kelly admitted that pressure of work meant he wrote ‘...on the DART and over a sandwich’. Doubtless much substantial work has been produced under these pressing conditions, but here one gets the feeling that it is very much pieced together and slapdash. Kelly can obviously write prose, but this is hardly a novel at all, since it is bitty, and lacks coherence. He may be aiming for the surreal wit of Flann O’Brien, but O’Brien is both darker and funnier. There is too little plot or character development to keep most readers happy. Sure, it’s meant to be a funny book, not a serious book, but it is not a seriously funny book..

At one point the narrator writes of television producer The Cockroach:

...Clive Ratcliff The Cockroach was the worst kind of

cockroach - a cockroach who worked in television. He

was a vampire, a leech - an empty vessel that needed to

be filled by the ideas of others. This way he fancied he

might live for ever in the credits. He was a virus, a parasite

and a pest and he needed a good kick in the arse.

and at another:

Mister Ratcliff, I said calmly, beginning in deliberate tones

but soon freewheeling, you are a fraudulent, two-faced,

useless, talentless, valueless, bloodsucking bastard -

and if you ever contact me again you will die a cruel and

unusual death and you will not live to see your next miserable,

hateful production. I swear to you, Mister Ratcliff, I will

actually kill you. You are the embodiment of all that I despise -

all that is wrong with the opportunistic, false, unscrupulous,

corrupt, shabby, double-dealing, hypocritical and time-serving

milieu in which you prosper. I have no desire to be a part of it

and I certainly have no desire to go anywhere near a charlatan

like you!

Unfortunately, with the appearance of this book, John Kelly is running the risk of falling into the trap of becoming that which he is criticising, bringing the callow, shallow (lack of) values of television to make callow, shallow publishing, sad for someone who produces quality broadcasting in such wretched circumstances. If he were not an established media personality, I’d wager this effort would not be getting published under the Cape imprint. It is also, incidentally, not up to Cape’s usually high proof-reading and editorial standards.

The Little Hammer has a laugh here and there, but it is not a great work of art, nor was probably meant to be. Someday John Kelly may write a good book, and display as much talent and discernment as a novelist as he currently does as a broadcaster and cultural commentator, but on the evidence of his first fictional outing, which follows the personal travelogue Cool About The Ankles, he still has a considerable way to go to achieve this goal. Maybe he should take more time, or else stick to what he does best.

First published in Books Ireland


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