Ithaca, by Alan McMonagle, Picador, 320 pp, ISBN: 978-1509829842
I loved this book and I cannot recommend it highly enough. If comparisons with Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy (since this story is also unreliably narrated by a protagonist who could be described as a juvenile delinquent) and Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart (because of thematic similarities) are inevitable, Alan McMonagle has nothing to fear. Ithaca is certainly equal to such comparisons. It is assured and poised, hilarious and poignant, a tour de force.
The almost-twelve-year-old protagonist/narrator’s name is Jason, and indeed his identity with Jason of the Argo, the one-sandalled one, seems to be established when our Jason’s “tackie” (apparently a runner or sneaker) falls off his foot and into a swamp. The title of the novel, however, and continual references to Ithaca in the text very obviously point to a different Greek voyage. One could have a lot of fun of a wet Tuesday afternoon teasing out the Odyssean and other Greek references – anyone for Telemachus? – but the connections are lightly indicated and one can enjoy this novel without bothering about the epic allusions.
We are in small-town Ireland, and the money that had been sloshing about the country has suddenly disappeared. The town is half-derelict, the people as depressed as the economy. Jason lives with his wildly dysfunctional, alcoholic mother. He is curious to the point of obsession about the identity of his father, who has never figured in his life. He proposes various men with whom his mother is or has been involved as his missing parent, but his mother remains tight-lipped – or rather she ridicules his suggestions. The truth, of course, as the reader quickly realises, is that she has no idea who his father was. But Jason remains dogged in his determination to convince himself that he has pinned his da down. His fantasies in this respect diverge further and further from plausibility, and Jason’s quest becomes more heart-breaking as it becomes more ludicrous.
In Jason, McMonagle has created a character who is entirely lovable from unpromising material – an occasionally foul-mouthed and far from fragrant young fantasist in a hoodie from a filthy home on the wrong side of the tracks whose idea of an afternoon’s entertainment is to paint outrageous and incriminating slogans all over the swanky external walls of the mansion of an absconded developer on “Rich Hill”. Even snaffling a large quantity of prescription drugs from a local depressive and consuming them indiscriminately starts to look like a reasonable response to Jason’s accumulating problems.
Jason’s mother is waging constant war against crushing debts and increasingly demanding creditors who can only sometimes be bought off with sexual favours. In a desperate series of attempts to elicit sympathy from her persecutors – the landlord, the local guard, a bank official, various suppliers of goods and services, powerful men in general – she attributes all kinds of increasingly lurid illnesses and symptoms to the hapless (though surprisingly healthy) Jason. Jason is by turns afraid of her and touchingly loyal to her and when she actually disappears for several days – on a romantic trip to Paris, Jason benignly concludes, on the most tenuous evidence – his bravado is clearly just that. He has been relieving his mental anguish from time to time by cutting himself with a rusty nail, a blade, a shard of glass, and now he does himself serious damage with a knife.
His only friend is a nameless girl of around his own age who appears from time to time and tries to seduce him – but he is, after all, pre-pubescent, and he has no interest in being seduced. The girl provides him with friendship of a sort, though her life is clearly as chaotic as his own and her continual flirtation with suicide bothers him.
It may not sound like it, but Ithaca is a very funny book. The cast of supporting characters – the bullying brothers, Brains and No Brains, Liz the Nose and the men who are always to be found in the local pub, for example –provide a good deal of the comic relief, but a lot of the humour comes from Jason’s own wise-cracking voice and swaggering interactions with adults around the town. His insistence on reading even the most dire situations positively is at once pathetic and hilarious.
McMonagle has chosen to make his protagonist/narrator very young, presumably in order to exploit his naivety to both comic and pathetic ends; to emphasise his innocence in order to elicit the reader’s sympathy for his extreme plight; and to avoid the complications of sexual involvements in a story that relies in part for its appeal on parental and societal neglect of its blameless protagonist. Perhaps wisely, he never attempts to make Jason sound eleven years old. This description, for example, is brilliant, but it is far too knowing to have been written by a child, even a streetwise kid, old beyond his years:
Already the road was steep, getting steeper all the time. Soon the high walls appeared and the fancy gates. The leafy trees and reliable cars. The air tasted different up here. It tasted of safety and comfort. Of cut lawns and wind chimes and proper perfume and soap and barbecued ribs. Of clean clothes and new flowers and fresh fruit. It tasted of good luck.
The effect is unnervingly Bugsy-Maloneish. But the mismatch between Jason’s age and his voice is a powerful driver of both the novel’s pathos and its comedy. This incongruity enables the author to let his narrator veer between incomplete comprehension of what is going on around him and a kind of idiot savant wiliness, which recruits the reader’s sympathy even as it entertains.
Ithaca treads a fine and clever line – it is a novel that tackles intensely political themes without ever for a moment descending into polemic. Its treatment of its subject and its realisation of its characters are far too sophisticated for that. And besides, it’s all a great joke – isn’t it?
Read this book – and watch out for a revelation near the end that totally undercuts one’s reading until that point. In a narrative where fantasy and realism jostle for supremacy, Jason surely has the last laugh.
Siobhán Parkinson is a writer, translator and publisher.