I should come clean about something before you (wise reader that you are) go much further than this sentence. Here it is: I’m an evangelist for Ripley Bogle. It’s one of those books I’d take to a desert island because it’s on my top ten list, usually floating around the #4 or #5 slot. Here is an example of excellent writing and every time I pick it up I find something new, something brilliant. Whenever I get asked to recommend a “good read” this is the novel I mention and I do this because so few Americans have heard of Robert McLiam Wilson. Yet the voice he creates in Ripley Bogle is memorable, hilarious, and fearsomely intelligent. I like to say that Ripley Bogle is a collision between Charles Dickens, the punk movement, and the Troubles in Northern Ireland. And, if I’m being totally honest, I’m also jealous that he wrote this sparkling gem of a novel when he was only 25 years old. That’s just unfair.
Some background perhaps. Yes, you deserve this.
I moved to Belfast in the early 1990s when the Troubles were still going on. Car bombs popped around the city and headlines announced that yet another person had been shot. Men roamed the night with machine guns and baseball bats. This little spot of earth went about the business of tearing itself apart between 1969 and 1998. It was a civil war fought in slow motion. It was mean and vicious and terrible. Hearts were broken. Blood was spilled.
Belfast, you’ll understand, was not exactly a city for tourists. Catholics were shooting Protestants. Protestants were shooting Catholics. The British Army roved the street in massive armored trucks while, high above the city, there was the constant thud of military helicopters. They were always up there, spying. At night they turned off their running lights so you couldn’t see them. You’d hear them though, and they shook the glass in windowpanes. They became a weird kind of white noise as you drifted off to sleep.
This was the world I entered. My mother was born and raised in Northern Ireland, but since I grew up in America I didn’t know the place very well. And I really wanted to know it well. So I packed my bags and became a citizen of my ancestral city. It was important for me to talk with Protestants and Catholics, Irish and British, Unionists and Republicans. I wanted to understand why the violence was happening and I wanted to listen to the voices beyond the headlines.
This is how I stumbled across Ripley Bogle. By the time I arrived in the early 1990s it had already won a pile of prestigious awards and it was in all of the bookstores. I picked up a copy and sat down to read about this character — this young man named Ripley Bogle — and I was mesmerized by his use of language, his dark humor, and how he challenges the very notion of Irishness itself. This is not a book for the shamrocks-and-Guinness crowd because Ripley Bogle is a direct assault on nationalism and cultural nostalgia in general. The main character is more interested in poverty and what it means to remember the past.
And remembering the past is what Ripley Bogle is all about. Set in the mid-1980s, the main character is currently homeless in London. As he wanders around the streets and tries to stay warm, he remembers his violent childhood in Belfast. We move back and forth between the violence of Northern Ireland and the rough streets of London. Bogle moves around London like a modern-day Dickens even as he recalls what it was like to grow up in the warzone of Belfast. We read about a tar-and-feathering he witnessed when he was a boy, we learn about the executions and punishment beatings he saw, and then we return to London where he is freezing. He sits outside the Queen’s palace and imagines her looking at him.
The subject matter is dark and grim to be sure, but Bogle’s voice tugs us forward and we want to hear more. He has a wicked sense of humor and the entire narrative is sprinkled with imaginary conversations with Dickens, Orwell, and a host of other literary giants. We also run across frequent songs that Bogle makes up, like:
“Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
Don’t give a toss to what you are,
Up above the world so high,
Like shiny acne in the sky”
“Our Ireland is a lovely place,
A supergroovy nation
Bigotry is her pastime
Death her occupation.”
And because Bogle smokes cigarettes the way the rest of us breathe oxygen, he frequently thinks about getting cancer, as in this song:
“We’re the boys from Deathsville
The lads from Cancer Alley
We dogfight with the cellular
And add them to our tally
So look out for Melanoma,
Watch out for Dermoid Cyst
If you meet Carcinoma,
You’ll quickly not exist.”
Ripley Bogle is hugely entertaining — yes — but its greatest triumph is allowing us to peek into the Troubles of Northern Ireland as well as homelessness in London. We’re used to narratives where the Irish speaker is good-hearted, folksy, he loves Ireland, he cares about the countryside more than the city, and he never lies. Ripley Bogle turns all of this on its head. Here is a narrator who isn’t good-hearted, he plays magic tricks with the English language, he is an urban pacifist who hates Ireland, and we’re never entirely sure if he’s telling us the truth or not.
For my money, Robert McLiam Wilson has written the best novel to come out of Northern Ireland in the last 30 years. It’s hugely readable and it’s unfairly good. Ripley Bogle is the kind of novel you’ll appreciate having read and, I dare say, you may became an evangelist for it yourself one day: “Wait, wait,” you’ll say. “You’ve got to read this book. I dare you to read the first 10 pages and walk away. I triple-dog-dare you.”
PS. I should also mention his other critically acclaimed novel, Eureka Street, which was published in 1996 and also takes place in Belfast. Since then, Robert McLiam Wilson has been working on a novel called Extremists but, year after year, it has been delayed. He seems to be like JD Salinger in both his cult following and his endless work on a new but continually postponed novel. (If you ever read this Robert, I’d love to interview you. You’re a writer that makes other writers very jealous. Email me. I’ll fly to Paris and pay for all the coffee).
Patrick Hicks is the author of ten books, including The Commandant of Lubizec: A Novel of the Holocaust and Operation Reinhard (Steerforth/Random House) and The Collector of Names (Schaffner Press). He is the Writer-in-Residence at Augustana College and a faculty member at the MFA program at Sierra Nevada College. His website is www.patrickhicks.org