Trawling through my hard drive in search of an errant fiction file, I came across my original “Trainspotting” review, done this month 21 years ago for one or other of the New York publications at the time …
Currently not so much a film as a phenomenon, “Trainspotting” has been preceded by a blast of mega-hype reaching all the way across the Atlantic. Do you have to see it? Do you really? Well, read on…
Based on the novel by Scottish writer Irvine Welsh (who also wrote “The Acid House”), the book meanders in and around of the lives of the post-punk, no-future generation of unemployed Edinburgh youths enmeshed in heroine addiction, not unlike many in our other favourite post-colonial city, Dublin.
For all the hype, though, it grossed $15 million, more than any other Scottish film. Made by director Danny Boyle, screenwriter John Hodge and producer Andrew McDonald (who made “Shallow Grave”, released last year), it deals with heroine addiction, AIDS, unemployment and poverty. But it also delivers a full-blast infusion of the lust for life that any gang of twenty-somethings will have in any city.
Taking no prisoners, it’s an honest, brilliant and devastating take on a very real part of urban life, managing to deliver that world faithfully – with all its gallows humor and its highs and lows.
If the book is one of the best ever penned about about heroine addiction, the film follows suit. Because while anybody watching the film will work out that heroine is an evil that consumes its victims continuously and relentlessly, you see that the characters, to put it in their own words, “aren’t stupid” – they do it because of the sheer pleasure. They have fun, they are rebels, they care nothing for the society that has provided them with nothing, they run around committing small-time robberies, organizing scams and petty deals to fund their habits, and they do their drugs. Addiction is set out on the screen with no frills, no excuses. It’s comparable in grit to Gus Van Sant’s “Drugstore Cowboy”, although for sheer scatological detail “Trainspotting” is more harrowing.
Renton, Spud, Sick Boy, Begby and the others know no pain when they are on smack, they have no everyday worries, no bills, no problems, no rent, no emotional hassles – everything in their lives is solved and sugared by this incredible substance. And yet everything in their lives is at the same time reduced to a vile lowest common denominator, as when one squat mate’s baby dies of neglect in its cot, and all the mother can think of doing is banging up another hit of smack. Or when Tommy, the only one in the crowd who remained outside the game, finally joins in and falls faster than any of them.
The controversy surrounding “Trainspotting” in England and Ireland is centred on whether this film “glorifies” drugs. This is fairly typical of the Irish and British authorities, who seem to get more worked up about peripherals than actually getting down and dealing with the everyday challenges of their gang-strangled streets. Recently the Irish government sent 500 of their policemen up to the Northern Ireland border to save the Republic from the illegal crossings of potentially “mad” cows, while journalist Veronica Guerin was gunned to bits in Dublin city by drug lords. With an estimated 10,000 heroine addicts in Dublin alone, how worrying can one film about drugs be?
Take “Trainspotting” as you like. See it to get a bloody hard look at a problem that is widespread in Irish and Scottish society today. See it for its spectacularly stylish cinematic qualities or its fabulous soundtrack. See it for Ewan McGregor’s grin, for Spud’s glasses, for Kelly McDonald’s demented school uniform, see it to have a good laugh – or see it and weep. But see it.
So delighted to get up this dark December morning and read the lovely piece today in The Irish Examiner by Sue Leonard, run as part of the “Beginner’s Pluck” column. Sue’s kind words further made my day as she accredited the work with something every writer tries to acheive: Whether she is describing the heartbreak of a family whose child has been damaged by a landmine; the impermanence of love on the field, or an exquisite encounter on a beach at dawn, Mulkerns creates magic. With the verdict concluding that the book is “quite a wonderful collection of linked stories” I’ll be starting the new year on a high tomorrow. It was great to meet with Sue and chat, and you can see more about her on her own website here.
Meanwhile, click here or click on the image below for the article. My favourite line of it quotes me on working for Hot Press Magazine during my rock’n’roll years: “I was hanging around backstage with various bands,” she says.’ Yes indeed – what a job description!
The Irish Independent newspaper asked Irish Writers for their “top book picks” of 2016 for the Christmas Eve issue, and it was great to see Dermot Bolger giving the heads up to Ferenji in his input. Click here or on the image below for details.
He notes: “It is also lovely when a writer whose stories you have read with pleasure for years finally collects them in an overdue debut, and I was very taken with Helena Mulkerns’ Ferenji (Doire Press) where she mines her experiences as someone working in remote, dangerous regions with the United Nations to create short fictions which are finely written and astutely observed, in terms of the human heart and of the physical terrain they skilfully traverse.”
Yes, it sounds like a mouthful, but it was a pleasure to actually do this. That is, write a review of two literary reviews, in an Irish art world review: the sumptuous and ever interesting Irish Arts Review.
The reviews in question were the Spring/Summer editions of The Dublin Review and Irish Pages, which, if you haven’t caught up with yet, you should. Both the Irish Pages editions are dedicated to Seamus Heaney, and feature an astounding seventy-something contributors: crucial for all Heaney fans.
Issues 62 and 63 of The Dublin Review feature writers as diverse as Rob Doyle, Eimear Ryan and Ian Sansom. A great double read for any short fiction or essay fans.
But either way – also pick up Irish Arts Review’s Autumn edition, with its eye-catching cover depicting Maser’s important and much maligned mural. Packed full of art!
TO SEE THE REVIEW CLICK HERE (more…)
THE SAN FRANCISCO BOOK FESTIVAL turns out to be exactly what it’s billed as: a “celebration of books”. Leave your cares, your TV, your Internet (although it does rear its ugly head) and your sense of time behind you,and head into an arguably dying realm. After all, the Japanese have already invented the slim, compact, CD ROM book-reading device which you hold in your hand and press a tiny panel to turn the “pages”.
For all that, books, their creators and their enthusiasts appear strangely healthy this weekend, by the end of which strong backs are necessary to cart away compulsive print purchases, many signed by the gang of authors who have descended on the town for the event. Over the weekend, you could attend readings by American book heroes as diverse as Amy Tan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Tobias Wolff, Joy Harjo or Alice Walker, with visits by writers from China, India and Peru.
The Pads, of course, are no exception. Not to be completely out done by the mucho-sexy Frankfurt extravaganza, San Francisco this year featured a strong Irish – Indeed Celtic – presence, with writers travelling from the auld sod and around the US to participate in a special panel entitled “The Wild Colonials: The Writing Irish Abroad”. (more…)
From Bloomsbury USA, ISBN: 9781620407547
So, how to describe this debut novel receiving multiple favourable reviews? You can say simply, it’s a good read. It has strong, likeable main characters. It has a well-constructed plot and a solemnly satisfying conclusion. You could say that the dialogue is plausible, and the fact that its author himself served in Iraq makes it ring true.
But the fact Michael Pitre served as a Marine isn’t enough to distinguish this novel – what makes it shine is that this man is a writer that served as a Marine.
Over and above the inarguable power that comes from a writer’s first hand knowledge of his subject, there is a heartfelt craft evident here that proves the dictum, “fiction can be truer than non-fiction.” Freed of the restrictions or embellishments of memoir, Michael Pitre brings us vividly into a world that most readers are not acquainted with and interprets it with accuracy, poignance and humor.
At first seeming like a possible easy read, with its straight prose and dialogue, the novel in fact reveals the stories of its main protagonists through means of alternating chapters, both present day and flashback.
These protagonists are strong, memorable. We meet, dislike and then get to deeply like the misplaced young Lieutenant Donavan. Dodge, a smart young Iraqi engaged as an interpreter is no cardboard cut out, but a witty, complex, passionate young man with a dramatic back story who is thrown into circumstances that have transformed his life utterly. Corpsman Doc Pleasant is a tough guy whose deep flaws are torn open by war. Sergeant Gomez is one of those characters who will fascinate and stay with the reader forever – especially by the end of the novel, when she becomes a symbol of the true meaning of combat. Skillfully portrayed as ruthless Lioness, the author lets her armor down just enough for us to know her as a woman and not just a soldier.
“Fives and Twenty Fives” not only relays the intensity of high-tech contemporary combat, but also the loneliness and confusion of many who return, adrift, to life at home. This aspect of the novel, a little in the style of the classic post-conflict piece, Speaking of Courage by Tim O’Brien, is powerful yet unsentimental.
Following a climactic battle scene that ties together many of the plot’s threads, the novel concludes with a redemptive road trip – an appropriate ending to the book, that answers the last of the reader’s questions about the fate of its characters.
Lastly, one key aspect to “Fives and Twenty Fives” is that, while set in one of the most passionately opposed and disputed wars of recent times, it is wisely free from politics, choosing to focus instead on people and not polemic. Thus, instead of a novel about war it transcends as a study of humans in and post war – with just enough humanity to touch the heart of the reader.