White City, By Kevin Power, Scribner, 448 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-1471132780
The wait for a second novel by Kevin Power has been a long one. His first, the caustic Bad Day in Blackrock, published just as the financial whirlwind of 2008 was sweeping away the Celtic Tiger, won the Rooney Prize and was later adapted into Lenny Abrahamson’s equally compelling film, What Richard Did. Along with Paul Howard’s satirical Ross O’Carroll-Kelly books (though entirely different in tone), Power’s debut has a claim to be the definitive guide to the boom-time habits and attitudes of what its narrator calls the “new ruling class”, the “vast Catholic bourgeoisie, resident in a six-mile triangle of south County Dublin, who peopled the universities and the courts and the chambers of the government”.
Based loosely on events surrounding the real-world killing of a teenager outside a Dublin nightclub, Bad Day in Blackrock persuasively suggests the collective culpability of this privately educated, rugby-revering elite for the crime committed by its privileged offspring and for what was perceived to be the unjust leniency of the legal system towards them. In terse, highly controlled prose, measured out in short chapters, Power evokes a righteous fury about the damaging sense of entitlement in this new world of “easy credit, of two-car families and cheap cocaine … in which, on any given evening, you could watch while a pyjamaed teenage girl with back-combed hair and furry boots jogged across the bleak forecourt of an all-night petrol station to buy a packet of safety razors to cut herself with”.
Power was clearly finely attuned to this new era of unfamiliar wealth, and had something urgent to say about it. A teacher and academic, as well as a brilliant critic and essayist, he has since then continued to publish fiction in the form of short stories – but, until now, no further novel.
Bad Day in Blackrock is a taut, sombrely moving book, grounded in a ready-made story; by contrast, Power’s new novel, White City, is capacious and comic, luxuriantly written, with an intricate plot and heightened characterisation. The south Dublin terrain remains the same (at least until the action starts switching back and forth to Serbia), but the times and tone have changed. At first, it may seem unadventurous for Power to choose as his antihero narrator another southside son of privilege, but as soon as Ben’s dazzling, misanthropic stream of crankiness starts pouring out, in the form of a journal he’s been instructed to keep by his addiction counsellor, we are drawn into his conflicted feelings about his background, an ambivalence that propels the book and is one of its themes.
The twenty-seven-year-old Ben (whose surname is only ever known to us as “[REDACTED]”, a pointer to his father’s notoriety) spells out the parameters of his situation at the start: “I am the bitter only son of a disgraced rich man and I have washed up here in rehab, at the end of every road, with zero money, zero prospects, zero hope.”
He then takes us through his litany of grievances, starting with his suavely shifty father’s arrest for multimillion-euro financial improprieties and moving on to his mother’s drinking, his actor girlfriend Clio’s awakening of his own huge appetite for drugs and his frustrated (and, to his parents, unappealing) dreams of being a writer, to which end he is failing to complete the thesis his father is paying for him to do.
Then there are the networks that Ben’s private education has given him access to. Initially contemptuous of “The Lads” he went to school with, whose lives follow compliantly in the tainted footsteps of “The Dads of the Lads”, Ben finds his noble view of his destiny speedily undermined when his own family money dries up and he has to get a job:
Now I was marooned in the BlueVista call centre, which, with its moribund ferns and grime-fogged windows, seemed to represent a twilit world of radically lowered expectations. I wondered: What the fuck am I doing here? Wasn’t I supposed to have leapfrogged over all this entry-level servitude? Wasn’t I supposed, by now, to have alighted with gymnastic grace on the fluffy pillows of ferocious solvency? Wasn’t that the whole point of people like me?
With Ben thus softened up by actual work, the mirage of “ferocious solvency” soon appears to him in the form of a smoothly patronising old school acquaintance, James Mullens, who outlines a dodgy-sounding real estate scheme in Serbia, for which Ben quickly enrols. After James’s full-on moral seduction (“I heard you were doing a PhD. I was, like, yeah, obviously, smartest guy in our year …”), it’s not long before aspirations are being refined in terms of the life-changing pile of cash Ben now expects to make:
I conducted snarling diagnoses of the state of the West: look at all those trapped people, gazing into the black screens of smartphones built by suicidal Chinese engineers, treading streets above noisome sewers jammed with fatbergs, dwarfed by buildings owned by tax-evading multinationals who have poisoned the oceans with microplastics… I was going to scam my way out of it all.
Ben’s volatility is vividly portrayed ‑ one minute needy and self-pitying, the next grandiose and cruel ‑ as chaotically contradictory as the uppers and downers he ingests in ever greater quantities. Wanting to escape poverty, girlfriend, call centre and disgraced father, he spends his first payoff from his new job on renting a ten-grand-a-month penthouse in a luxury Dublin block called The Brokerage. His supposed role as a “Development Consultant” in the Serbian golf resort deal seems nebulous, but by now he’s no longer noticing any obstacles to his progress, his manically blinkered gaze fixed on the financial prize that will deliver him to what he unconvincingly claims to really want, “a life of solitude and purity in the wilderness”.
And so the action moves on to Serbia, via a prescient lightning-strike on Ben’s flight to Belgrade. (“Shit buzz,” Mullens says dismissively when Ben looks for sympathy.) There, the characterisation gets broader and the themes larger. Just how far exactly are Mullens, the Lads and Ben himself prepared to go to get their hands on the dosh? And how much historical reality would it take to dissuade them from their dubious dealings?
In a note at the end of the book, Power acknowledges that “the Serbia that appears in these pages probably shouldn’t be mistaken for the actual country of that name”, and it’s true that the characters he introduces us to there are caricatures of malevolent sentimentality – but they are also very funny. The males – “main man” Vuk, his two psycho minders and the translator Aleks – all have an interest in poetry and folk culture as well as in violence:
‘Belgrade is from Beo grad,’ Vuk said. ‘The White City. As Dublin means, Dubh linn, the Black Pool. This you have heard of, in your books? … The black and the white. The yin and the yang. There is a poetry to it, no? A balance?’ The smile became wistful, dreamy. Behind the eyes, memories were crowding. ‘I wrote poetry once. When I was very young. But young men write poetry, do they not?’
‘Eh, depends which young men,’ I said, essaying what seemed like an acceptable bon mot.
Meanwhile, Vuk’s cartoonishly predatory adoptive daughter, Maria, begins to pursue the floundering Ben, repeatedly cornering him as the Irish-Serbian consortium takes off on a grimly sociable tour of bleak locations (with breaks for hedonism and abasement) on its way to the site of the notional Echo Lake development on the Bosnian border.
As the plot reaches its climax, the book’s gradual shift in mood from comedy to something darker is handled with great skill, opening it out to a wider perspective. The Dublin and Serbian sections of the story intersect and coalesce, and a connecting theme gradually emerges: what to do about the buried past, personal and political, and about the older generation who appear always ready to mess with the prospects of the young.
White City is both riotous rant and thoughtful coming-of-age tale. One of the great pleasures of Power’s protean way with language is that it can be highly entertaining while also carrying a subtle forensic intent. As in Bad Day in Blackrock, the punchy lyricism enables sympathy as well as anger or laughter, a sense that the characters are moving along predestined paths that give them little chance of understanding either themselves or the society around them. Ben, though, has the chance to re-evaluate his outlook, and gradually his trajectory is altered.
Reading Power’s two novels makes one realise how much has changed in the decade-plus between their writing. Apart from bailouts, austerity, omnipresent social media, #MeToo, transformative referendums, populism, the pandemic and so on, there is the wave of new and diverse voices, mainly of women, who have galvanised Irish fiction and reshaped its identity in recent times. There is, too, the reckoning with Catholicism that’s taken place. While Bad Day in Blackrock looked at the hubris of the first wealthy Catholic (though increasingly secularised) generation, the characters in White City are definitively godless. Waiting for his dealer on O’Connell Bridge, Ben, perhaps feeling that something has been lost, watches a pair of Mormon missionaries moving among the crowds:
Everyone waved them away but they kept smiling and trying again. They seemed happy, as if they knew that the long equation of the world would eventually add up and tell them what they needed to know … The world challenged you to find it meaningful, and gave you various options to choose from: art, business, faith, family, drugs. There were probably less idiotic choices than religion, but perhaps it made no difference, in the end.
Although he is not yet forty, Power’s work thus already spans two generations, suggesting that he is well placed to bring the perspective of the past, of the booming Ireland he remembers, to bear on a contemporary society that he knows equally well.
In one of his essays (about Jonathan Franzen), Power makes the point that some writers use ideas to make their thoughts cohere, while others use story. (He sees Franzen as one of the latter.) In White City, Power has developed his storytelling gift on a larger scale than before, and together with his well-established fluency with ideas and flair for exhilarating language, has made a tremendously enjoyable and impressive novel: sharp, current, comic, humane and satisfyingly constructed. Let’s hope there’ll be plenty more, and soon.
Giles Newington is a freelance journalist and editor.