By Robert McLiam Wilson
A Cambridge dropout turned penniless drifter, the unforgettable Ripley Bogle takes us through the underbelly of London and into the surreal world of a vagabond. But Bogle is not your average bum. With a razor-sharp intellect, prodigious powers of perception, and better-than-average appearance (“Most movie stars would give their false back teeth for the kind of lived-in look that I possess”),
Bogle careens through the wild streets of homelessness and Irish identity, all the while regaling us with the tale of his ragged Belfast past—and the events that led up to his extraordinary existence.
Wilson’s debut is an ironic bildungsroman of sorts, in which the eponymous protagonist, a tramp in London, describes over a period of four days the events of his childhood and adolescence in a Catholic working-class district of Belfast. These memories, many of which derive from Wilson’s own experience, form a disturbing and violent history of the Troubles presented from the perspective of a jaundiced naivety, a boyhood innocence prematurely destroyed.
““I am twenty-one years old, my name is Ripley Bogle and my occupations are starving, freezing, and weeping hysterically.”
“(“As a people we’re a shambles; as a nation - a disgrace; as a culture we’re a bore ... individually we’re often repellent”)
“In my boyhood, the sky was bright and clear, spilling its jewelled smiles into my widening windows. Mad September wasps fought lunatic dogfights in my days and suffered frenzied deaths at my experimental hand. The harboured dust of gravelled paths sprinkled my classroom steps. The Sacred Heart Primary School for Catholic Boys – woodbrown and sunpale. Old blackboards, chalked and musty. The venerable breadth of childhood. The tributes of many wandering boyhoods that had been tricked out in this place. What gusty scenarios I played out there! Lulled by the delicious boredom of school. Mind tickled by the once worldly figures of antiquity and legend (I had a youthful crush on Demosthenes for some obscure reason).
The sum of boyhood is always elegaic and patchy. Half-held traces of cloudless aspiration. Quick pictures. Same for me. Dusty days in granite playgrounds when I tried to understand the passing of time but gave myself a headache, so big and strange it seemed. Playing football after school while light grew dim and cast dramatic shadows on those walls. Gritbound lanes, where I waited for my life to form; events to come from eventful haz of childhood wonder and confusion. Boy oh boy the endless possibilities and comeliness of inexperience. Epiphanies galore!”
““the one thing that really fucks me up is decency. That deliberate calm, that fucking equanimity. Pit me against a truly decent man, a short-arsed tubby middle-aged mediocrity with an overdraft and scraggy teen-aged daughters and I’m useless. I’m massacred by all that mild wisdom, that relentless charity and experience. The consideration, the tact, the placid acceptance. Christ above, the sheer unnecessary goodness of these people makes me sick! I get all humble and I stammer…me for chrissakes! Gorgeous, gregarious, grabber me! When I was younger I used to beat the crap out of them, shag their wives and piss on their toupees – all that kind of thing. But it never really made any difference. I still had the feeling they were winning whatever prize our contest held. I couldn’t take it….
…The thing about the old is that they’re old. They are pompous, intolerant and cantankerous. They have no spontaineity and no vigour. They are terribly sentimental about being old.
The thing about the young is that we are young. We are obstinate, vain and insolent. We have no wisdom and no judgement. We are terribly sentimental about being young.”
“I spent a great deal of my childhood seeing things that I shouldn’t have seen and making the acquaintance of uncomfortable notions that certainly could have waited a decade or so for their entrance. Murder, violence, blood, guts and sundry other features of Irish political life tend to telescope one’s development a little as you can imagine.”
Extract courtesy of the author
“By detailing the painful minutiae of homeless existence with aching accuracy, Bogle succeeds in making the impersonal hostility of street life in London seem almost as cruel as the intimate terror of Belfast. He is unsettlingly deadpan in his descriptions of one horrific episode after another, but making readers uncomfortable seems to be precisely Wilson’s aim. What better way to evoke a world of senseless, skittish violence than to disconcert the reader with a challenging - and puzzling - narrator?
And what better way to leave the reader truly puzzled than by tossing in a series of gratuitous twists at the end of the novel? Several truly unpleasant acts are pinned on Bogle, and it’s difficult to discern the author’s intent. ‘‘I think that the reason lies in the story,’’ Bogle hazards, ‘‘and that the story itself lurks sly behind the cause. Can you see it? I must admit, I can’t.’’ This may be a stab at Joycean inscrutability, but Bogle is selling himself short. It’s a shame that he tempts readers to do the same.
Wilson finds much to amuse us in the political rivalries of Belfast. The mysterious appearance on walls, paving stones and phone boxes of the letters OTG causes panic in the world of bully boys since nobody knows what they stand for. Puzzling that out is one of the incidental pleasures of the book.
He has a lot of fun with the Gaelic-language fanatics, satirising people with unpronounceable names saying unpronounceable things. But that doesn’t mean Wilson doesn’t take the Troubles seriously. He demonstrates compassion through dispassion when he describes in sober detail the horrors of a bomb exploding in a sandwich bar, providing moving biographies of the people torn apart (literally) by it.”
Liam Callanan (Georgetown University)
André Deutsch (1989)
TYPE OF PUBLICATION
ISBN 10: 0233983929 / ISBN 13: 9780233983929