New Hibernia Review 9.4 (2005) 65-78
Robert McLiam Wilson gave his 1996 novel Eureka Street a provocative subtitle: A Novel of Ireland Like No Other. This claim of uniqueness could refer to either the style or content of the book, but Eureka Street can also claim to be strikingly original because of the manner in which McLiam Wilson writes the violence of contemporary Belfast. His graphic description of a bomb blast in a Belfast shop—a description that violently interrupts an otherwise romantically funny story—carries extraordinary literary and imaginative power. Eureka Street concerns two working-class Belfast lads who are unlikely friends, one Catholic, one Protestant, and united in part by their inability to form mature relationships. Set in 1990s Belfast, amid peace negotiations and possible cease-fires, two men struggle to find love, money, fame, and stability. Introduced first is Jake Jackson, one of those recognizably charming, reformed rogues. In an interview with Richard Mills, McLiam Wilson comments that "Jake Jackson was supposed to be a satire of the reformed hardman, a stock character in crime fiction." Jake —a hard-boiled loser—is the dominant voice of the first part of the novel. The chapters devoted to his tale are narrated in the first person, while other chapters are in third person, although in these the anonymous narrator shares Jake's cynical tone. Jake introduces his best friend from across the Belfast barricades, Chuckie Lurgan. Chuckie is a fat, Protestant, momma's boy with at least one Catholic friend, namely Jake, and, like the rest of his family, possessing an unhealthy obsession with the rich and famous. McLiam Wilson writes Jake and Chuckie's intertwined stories in clear, quickly paced prose that does wonders to create interest in their otherwise pathetic lives.
The middle of Eureka Street introduces a sudden and remarkable change in tone, pace, and style. Chapter 10 begins with a poetic, almost song-like description of the sleeping city of Belfast, a loving lullaby to the place first described by Jake as "the underpopulated capital of a minor province" that has achieved notoriety solely because of its "status of the battlefield." In shocking contrast to this lyrical beauty, Chapter 11 details a bomb blast in a Belfast sandwich shop that eradicates the lives of characters who are otherwise absent from the novel. Chapter 11, with its shift in narrative style, is radically different from the ones preceding and, indeed, following—for McLiam Wilson quickly returns readers to the Jake and Chuckie's day-to-day lives after inserting this powerfully drawn bomb blast. McLiam Wilson, in effect, sets up a melodious description of Belfast, full of clues to the reading of these unusual chapters, and then violently explodes his own narrative of love.
Why does McLiam Wilson destroy, and then recuperate, his own narrative? And how does the manner in which he narrates his chapters of violence inform what is undoubtedly an ethical drive in Eureka Street? Character propels the first half of the novel, and Jake Jackson articulates the ethical drive that underlies the story: empathy can stop violence. Jake's "hard man" ethics offers one way of reading the explosive Chapter 11, and of understanding its importance. Having written a novel that represents violence in such a way as to elicit an ethical response from the reader beyond simple sympathy, Robert McLiam Wilson demands of his readers both imagination and active empathy.
McLiam Wilson touched on these matters in a 1999 interview with Sylvie Mikowski, in which he says that he "wanted to avoid writing a novel in which anyone knew the names of the guns, and I wanted to write about violence responsibly, but in particular what I really wanted to do was to show the weight of a human life lost." In other words, his purposes in writing his "novel of Ireland like no other" are shaped by ethical concerns. As such Eureka Street distinguishes itself from many earnest novels of Northern Ireland's difficulties, and certainly from "Troubles trash" in two significant ways. First, the novel is both a satire and a lyric, a political rant as well as a romance...