The title of this book and the ads for it that I have seen would lead you to expect a totally comic novel—an enjoyable romp, really. It is that, but it is more as well, for in some respects this is an ambitious work, actually probably at its best when it is serious but, in any case, not at all the mere lark it might at first seem. Readers of the JJQ will be most immediately interested in the connections with Joyce. I will get to them, but, right off, let me mention one that I believe must be intentional but may not be: the echo in the cover of the Penguin Signet paperback edition, some fifty years ago, of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The parallel suggests that Colm Herron (or his cover designer) knows not only Joyce’s work but the history of Joyce publications (see Figures 1 and 2). (Speaking of the cover: the back one contains a summary of the novel that provides probably the most wildly inaccurate of such paragraphs I have ever come across.)
The novel contains a number of sub-plots with their own absorbing people, some of them mere walk-ons, but the two major plots (which are entwined throughout) center not on the “adventures of James Joyce” but on the lives and characters of two men. Conn Doherty is a middle-aged teacher who suffered a nervous breakdown in his youth and is now more involved in the politics of his school, and in his affair with the sexually voracious Melanie Muldoon, than in doing anything significant about the aimlessness of his life. The politics of the outer world also loom large. Conn is politically conscious, and that produces problems with the superiors at his school, who accuse him of supporting the IRA: his reply is that “I think what the IRA’s doin is a disaster. Just because I try to understand why they’re doin it doesn’t mean I agree with any of it” (45). The novel begins and mostly takes place in Derry (where Herron is from and currently lives) in 1988. In the background and sometimes in the foreground, we are in the world of the killings by the SAS of Mairéad Farrell, Dan McCann, and Sean Savage in Gibraltar in March and then the murders of three mourners at their funeral in the Milltown cemetery in Belfast.
The life of Conn’s friend and drinking buddy, Myles Corrigan, is even more aimless. He is living on some sort of disability allowance, doing little with his time other than hanging out, mostly with Conn, at the Drunken Dog pub: “It’s not worthy of me. Sittin with all those refugees. You know, it’s like as if it’s a sanctuary from the real world” (23). But he too is politically impassioned, and he is almost killed [End Page 169] when he feels compelled to be at the Milltown cemetery funeral.
It is with Myles that the novel immediately—on the first page—turns into metafiction, as Herron inserts an interpolated conversation between himself, as author, and Myles, his character. At times, Herron goes out of his way to undercut his own authority, as, for example, when he disputes with Myles about whether the firm’s title is “John Jameson and Sons” (as the figure of Herron claims) or “John Jameson and SON” (for which Myles correctly argues—10). More ominously for Myles, the conversation often deals with whether Herron will kill him off—“I’m seriously thinking of getting rid of you” (14–15). When Myles, in panic, tells him he cannot do that, Herron replies, “Who’s writing this book, you or me?” (15). After a time, we, the readers, seem meant to be totally uncertain of the answer to that question.
Okay, now to James Joyce: at times, there are allusions to Joyce that are clear enough in the account of Conn’s background, as when...