By Robert McLiam Wilson
A cynical and displaced young ‘repo man’ who recovers property from people in debt, expresses his contempt for the city of Belfast and comes to know the cultural and sectarian currents better through contact with a feckless boy.
The setting of the story is against the backdrop of the Troubles, as people try to live their complex lives without particular reference to the politics. But when violence intrudes in the story, with an unexpected explosion, it mirrors the experience of ordinary people who are caught up in it suddenly and out of no impulse of their own.
I crossed Shaftesbury Square. Though early, the Lavery’s overspill was already out on the street. Groups of unusually dirty youths lounged on the pavement with beer glasses in their hands. As I passed the bar, stepping over their outstretched legs, a warm, urinous waft hung in the air outside the doorway. I hated Lavery’s. It had to be the dirtiest, most crowded, least likeable bar in Western Europe. Consequently, it was enormously popular. Very Belfast. Einstein got it wrong. The Theory of Relativity didn’t apply to Lavery’s. Lavery’s time was different time. You went into Lavery’s one night at the age of eighteen and you stumbled out, pissed, to find you were in your thirties already. People drank their lives away there. Lavery’s was for failures. I was working as a tile layer and I couldn’t get into Lavery’s because I was too successful.
I walked up the Lisburn Road and passed the Anabaptist Church - or double-duckers as we called them - the South Belfast Gospel Hall, the Windsor Tabernacle, the Elim Pentecostal, the Methodist Mission, the Presbyterian Presbytery, and the Unitarian Church of Protestant Mnemonists or something like that. At the door of all the adjacent rectories, broken pastors stood, staring at me with grim expressions. To the old law, they were true. You crap on my grandfather, you crap on me. I found these guys infinitely more frightening than Crab, Hally or Ronnie Clay. I tried not to look like a Catholic. I tightened my Bible belt. I thought they were convinced.
“When you considered that it was the underpopulated capital of a minor province, the world seemed to know it excessively well. Nobody needed to be told the reasons for this needless fame. I didn’t know much about Beirut until the artillery moved in. Who’d heard of Saigon before it blew its lid? Was Anzio a town, a village or just a stretch of beach? Where was Agincourt exactly?
Belfast shared the status of a battlefield. The place-names of the city and country had taken on the resonance and hard beauty of all history’s slaughter venues. The Bogside, Crossmaglen, the Falls, the Shankill and Andersonstown. In the mental maps of those who had never been in Ireland, these places had tiny crossed swords after their names. People thought them deathfields - remote, televised knackers’ yards. Belfast was only big because Belfast was bad.
And who would have thought it thirty years before? Little Belfast could be such a beautiful city. Squatting flat in the oxter of Belfast Lough, hazily level with the water, the city was ringed with mountains and nudged by the sea. When you looked up the length of most Belfast streets, there was some kind of mountain or hill staring back at you.
From EUREKA STREET by Robert McLiam Wilson
Published by Martin Secker and Warburg
Reprinted by permission of The Random House Group Limited.
Extract courtesy of the author
“It is fitting that Dickens appears briefly as a character in Eureka Street, for this book again exhibits Wilson’s neo-Dickensianism; the use of caricatures and grotesques, of metonymic and symbolic devices, of a broad and colourful canvas, of humour compounded with pathos. And what the novel attempts, in fact, is the confident resolution of classic realism - the working out of various plot-strands towards appropriately moral conclusions, and the humanist redemption which the opening line of the book - ‘All stories are love stories’ - anticipates from the outset. For all his intended iconoclasm and irreverence therefore, and despite the inevitable bleakness of his raw material, Wilson’s agenda as a novelist of contemporary Northern Ireland would seem to be both life-affirming and restorative.” Eve Patten, contemporarywriters.com, 2002
Secker & Warburg
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