‘A river of Thousand Island dressing springs from my Hawaiian burger and plunges earthwards, a swollen pink torrent raging through the middle of my Stone Roses T-shirt. I care not.’
From this outrageously indulgent first line begins Skintown: a staggering accomplishment in fiction, though not without several major flaws. Everything you need to know about the novel is contained within that opening, which is why I think it’s a great line, even if a little unconventional; it juxtaposes the kind of exaggerated descriptions used in epic poetry with the mundane: fast food, a modern band-name and clothing, following it up with a deliberately archaic, clipped one-liner to induce comic bathos.
It’s rare I find a book as laugh out loud funny as I did Skintown (including that first line). Ciaran McMenamin has a style that is reminiscent of the late Sir Terry Pratchett’s though perhaps with more edge and a little Hunter S. Thompson thrown into the mix. Balanced with these influences is an introspective, voluble style that echoes the work of Michael Nath (La Rochelle). Described as ‘a drink and drug fuelled odyssey’, what sets it above many of its peers is an engrossing plot – a quest if you will – and whilst its characters are relentless consumers of all things reality-distorting, they are sympathetic and human too. Vincent Duffy, an 18-year-old alcoholic Catholic stuck in a dead-end job making takeaway food, is a compelling hero because he dares to dream that things could be different, that he could get out of ‘skintown’ and find a more fulfilling life. Though surrounded by friends, he is an outsider much like a hero of the epic canon such as Odysseus. His love of Pink Floyd and classic rock bands distinguishes him from the disco and house junkies. Much like other epic heroes, such as Gilgamesh or Hagen of Troneck, Vincent also has a best friend who proves key to the narrative: Jonty. Jonty acts, at times, almost like a deeper consciousness in Vincent, quietly encouraging him, reminding him of what is right and how he really feels, never once questioning Vincent’s motive to escape from skintown even though he himself wishes to remain. Both of these characters are extremely lovable, despite their flaws, and you root for them against incredible odds. The banter they share is expertly crafted – electrically real. You feel these are true people – who get caught up in tangents debating the nature of Halley’s Comet, the times they got caught masturbating, Ireland’s top DJs and house music – and not just narrative constructs.
The story is told in three parts: Town, Ned’s and Belfast. By the end of Town, Vincent has received his ‘quest’, his way to get out of ‘skintown’ (which intriguingly is also a nickname others use for Vincent specifically): he needs to sell 300 ecstasy tablets at a rave up at Ned’s club for Kyle and Grant, two protestant drug-dealers Vincent unwittingly saves from a car crash. Town culminates in an incredible riot scene, in which the alleged IRA ceasefire escalates into a full-on battle throughout Ireland and the arrival of the British Army. This scene is told with the same kind of stylistic power as a battle scene in a historical or fantasy novel, only swords are replaced with lead pipes and arrows with bricks and stones. This scene was one of the most tense, dynamic and creative extended fights/battles I’ve had the pleasure of reading in recent years, which I did not expect to find in a more introspective literary fiction novel. It is another example of how Ciaran McMenamin mirrors the epic time and again throughout Skintown whilst never losing sight of wit and modernity. A triumphant achievement.
After the ‘battle’, the story builds in truly epic fashion up to the rave at Ned’s. Vincent and Jonty, with Kyle and Grant’s help, assemble a kind of Jason and the Argonauts ‘epic team’: Davy, Bingo, Mickey and the Herculean ‘Long Jim’ who claims to suffer from ‘gigantism’ and is renowned for his incredible dancing at Ned’s. The rest of the team are there to help Vincent and Jonty sell the drugs, acting as bouncers and smugglers. Each character is entertaining in their own right and the culminating scene at Ned’s is a surreal and extraordinarily sensual katabasis (descent into hell).
‘Keith Moon’s snare starts a death march as I hold my breath, close my eyes, and bite down on forever.’
Ingeniously, a thread that has been running through the whole narrative via a recurring dream Vincent has is unexpectedly resolved in the scene at Ned’s, adding even further impetus to their mission and the stakes. Again, through the haze of drugs and debauchery, there are touches of the mythical, of the greater truths of the universe, and this is what, for me, sets Skintown apart from the innumerable other titles in the same ilk; junky teens on an endless bender has become a fad of recent times, and a boring one at that, regurgitating what Hunter S., Byron, Fitzgerald, Ginsberg and many others have already explored ad infinatum. Skintown gets away with it – breathes new life even – because through the alcoholic haze it still retains the magic of the deep, mythic stories ingrained in our culture, even our psyche.
But Ned’s is also where things start to go wrong. My personal view is that Skintown should have ended by at Chapter 8 of Part 2 – almost exactly two-thirds through the book. Without giving too much away, there is a satisfying optimistic ending here, one that promises hope whilst not artificially tying up every loose end. I truly feel this would have been the ideal place to end the story. Had it stopped here, I would have been left Skintown feeling enamoured and charmed. At some point, I would have wanted to read it again. But as it stands, the additional narrative that follows this culminating moment is dissatisfying. To be fair to all parties, I’m aware that publishers are prescriptive with word count – and if Skintown had stopped where I recommend the novel would only be 208 pages long, which might be too short for some. However, quality over quantity any day of the week. Some of the world’s greatest books (Heart of Darkness, The Great Gatsby) are exceedingly short and as a result: highly concentrated.
To go into more detail: the entire narrative drive is building up to Ned’s and this descent into madness in which they find true love and friendship, and shortly after that is where it should resolve in terms of a natural rhythm for the reader. The problem with going on after Ned’s is that the story has to re-start again, find momentum where there is none. As a reader, the chapters following Ned’s were painfully slow and it felt like it took a while to get back into stride. When it does – with a shocking twist event – I could not help but feel it was unjustifiably bleak and at odds with the tone of the rest of the book. Tristine Rainer once said that the definition of a climax is ‘where something in me died so something could live or be born’. I agree wholeheartedly with this statement, because it works at a symbolic level too. A character’s pride ‘dies’ for example so that their better self can live. Unfortunately, in Skintown, the additional part at the end alters the balance of this climax which means what has ‘died’, or been lost, far, far outweighs what is gained, leaving a bitter taste in the mouth.
Skintown is remarkable, but its near flawlessly entertaining prose is marred by this one critical fault of not knowing when the party’s over. Still, despite all, I’d recommend people read this debut if only to learn that the epic is certainly not dead yet, even if it is hugely translated. I will certainly be looking out for Ciaran McMenamin’s future works with great interest.
Ciarán McMenamin was born in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, in 1975. A graduate of the RSAMD, he has worked extensively for the past twenty years as an actor in film, television and theatre. He lives to fish. Skintown is his first novel.
Skintown was published by Doubleday Books on 6th April 2017.
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Review by Joseph Sale
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