Monday, July 21, 2014

Tom Phelan - Quiver at the Molesworth Gallery

A slightly edited version of this piece appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 20 July 2014

For a man who loves surfing as much as Tom Phelan it must be frustrating to live in Vienna where the mild beauty of the Danube hardly compensates for the spume filled thrills of Strandhill. But Phelan is an artist and the pain from his thwarted love affair with the waves has been transmuted into an arresting and colourful series of paintings in his new show at the Molesworth Gallery. Quiver, the title of the show, refers to a collection of surfboards of different size, shape and vintage. A surfboard is a fetish object where the aesthetics of the board are as important as its function and this gives Phelan an opportunity to play with its alluring geometry and brilliant colouring. The ambiguity of the term quiver also conveys the oscillation between abstraction and reality - between colour field and figurative. Phelan uses Casani birch panels for these paintings and the grain of the wood plays its part in the images - as well as recalling the early wooden surfboards. The surfer's field of dreams, the sea, also features in this impressive show.

Molesworth Gallery

John P. O'Sullivan



Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Nihilists at Work in South Dublin: Review of Here Are the Young Men by Rob Doyle

An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 6th July 2014

The spirit of Nietzsche looms over the action in Rob Doyle's darkly exhilarating first novel. But don't be alarmed, the book's intellectual architecture is well concealed beneath the boozing and braggadocio of its protagonists. The nearest we get to an explicit acknowledgement of the great German thinker's influence is Scag's philosophical riff half way through which contains a tasty chunk of Nietzsche's apocalyptic prologue to Thus Spoke Zarathustra - unattributed but with added 'fuckin's.

The novel portrays the antics of four epically disgruntled teenagers in that hiatus between sitting the Leaving Certificate and heading off in the directions designated6 by their results. You may acquire a hangover just by reading about their drug-fuelled ride through late Celtic Tiger Dublin. Drugs and drink are constantly sought and consumed and most of the action stems from their effects. Getting wasted is the one solid ambition they all share. But the boys behaviour is dictated by the cosmic squalor all around them. They are living in the twilight of the idols. God is dead, school is out, Church and State have failed them - the robber barons rule the land. Their irreverence and frantic drinking is a way of dealing with the void. Beneath the surface hedonism there is a dark undercurrent of seething emotions where terror, despair, and violence lurk. We know what we're in for as soon as we reach the fly-leaf. There's a quote from E. M. Cioran - a man famous for bemoaning the "inconvenience of existence". These youthful nihilists casual misogony is only trumped my their sustained misanthropy There are a few superficial similarities to the novels of his namesake Roddy, a writer admired by Rob. They share an ear for dialogue, particularly the oath-laden demotic of Dublin. However while Roddy has colonised the north side, Rob's characters roam between Greystones and Tallaght - with frequent excursions to Temple Bar and to Killiney Hill and its environs. These are south side boys but definitely not D4. One of the quartet's mother is a cleaner for God's sake. This is different territory in other ways also, a realm beyond good and evil.

Early on we encounter a spectacularly vile anti-Bono tirade that will give plenty of readers pause. But these are just the spewings of Kearney the book's resident psychopath. He will get his comeuppance. He's just reflecting darkly the level of invective often directed by Dubliners at this amiable and enormously successful rock musician. Pure Paddy begrudgery. And if that scene disturbs you wait until you get to the snuff movie description.

In addition to the juvenile nihilism of the four characters, there is an attendant sexual anxiety that afflicts all of them except, ironically, Cocker. It's as if this last avenue to escape and transcendence is also closed to them. Matthew is weak and vacillating and he knows it - he has moral fibre issues. He's also timid with girls and when he finally gets his much sought after Jen to bed discovers that he can't perform - not surprising perhaps considering the volume of drugs he has consumed. This is a horror for any man but for the shy teenager it's a trauma that ruins everything. Jen is unfazed by the sexual failure that blights his love for her. The girls in this novel are very relaxed about sex and its trappings compared to the boys. His later encounter with her and Kearney in flagrante merely compounds his misery and rage. This is a tragic unresolved love story at the heart of the action. Cocker seems to be benignly indifferent to the girls. In fact the Cocker character is the least well-drawn of the four, as if Doyle needed a foil for the erratic antics of the other three. He alone doesn't enjoy his own chapter headings which are divided between Matthew's first person agonising and the third person descriptions of the deranged Kearney and the over sensitised Rez. Kearney has a violent streak that emerges early on. He is obsessed with ultra violent computer games and creates alarming personal web cams. His attitude to girls is brutal and pragmatic, date rape is to be admired and eventually practised. Rez is the smartest of the four. He agonises about the human condition and raises the conversation above the bestial level struck by Kearney. His girl-friend dumps him all the better to frolic abroad with a clear conscience and when he discovers her emails to a friend gloating about her pleasuring by some holiday-camp Lothario he is quite undone - most particularly by the unfavourable comparisons she makes with his own sexual ministrations.

Half way through Doyle introduces the book's most likeable character, the old punk and stoner socialist Scag - who "dreamt of the day when the working classes refuse to work". He acts as Matthew's mentor and guide around Dublin in a way that faintly echoes Bloom and Daedulus's more restrained peregrinations. He points Matthew along the path of true stoner righteousness, which means avoiding a career at all costs.

The novel turns even darker in the latter stages. A trip to the US exposes Kearney to a snuff movie and he returns to Dublin with his vicious urges cranked up a few notches. The occasional outbursts of casual violence become more regular and more extreme - his inner psychopath comes out to play. He tricks Matthew into complicity in one of his crimes and from there things escalate to a murderous and fiery denouement - in Greystones of all places. This is a fine debut from Doyle. It shines a light into a relatively unexplored region: the psyches of our youth, adrift in a world where the old verities no longer exist. And its fast-moving episodic structure makes it a rollicking good read. God may be dead, but a new literary star is born.


Lilliput Press

304 pp


John P. O'Sullivan

July 2014


Thursday, July 03, 2014

My Mother Made me a Gambler


An edited version of the following piece was published in the Sunday Times on the 30th June 2014.

In 1953 I was living in the Curragh Camp - my father, a commandant in the Army, was stationed there. Our back garden opened out onto the sheep clad Curragh plains and as a child I wandered far and wide - without hindrance from my hard golfing parents. Donnelly's Hollow was a favourite resort. I'd follow Dan Donnelly's painstakingly recreated footsteps into the centre of the natural amphitheatre and imagine that famous fight with Englishman George Cooper in December 1815.

Further away lay another sporting venue - the Curragh racecourse. One July day in 1953 I made the trek across the plains with my mother to watch the Irish Derby. Only many years later did I realise what an infamous day it would turn out to be. The royal trainer Sir Cecil Boyd-Rochfort had sent over Premonition from his Newmarket yard. My mother, a life-long gambler on cards and horses, defied Gloria Steinem's judgement that "Women's total instinct for gambling is satisfied by marriage". She had a bet on Vincent O'Brien's horse Chamier - influenced no doubt by his stable's location not far from her birth place in Cashel. She also put a shilling on for me. Premonition won with Chamier a close second causing my mother to utter her trademark oath: "the curse of the seven snotty orphans on it". However, shortly afterwards a Steward's Inquiry was announced. There had apparently been some interference between the two principals. These days, when it takes gross interference to affect a result, it would have been thrown out. But back then stewards were more prone to exercise their power and they decided to favour the local horse. A decision that left Boyd-Rochfort fuming and resolving never to race again in Ireland. So enraged was he that he bought newsreel film of the race and had it shown for a week at cinemas around Newmarket.

My mother was well pleased of course and gleefully handed over my eight shilling winnings. I must have been a sanctimonious little prig in those days because I spent my ill-gotten gains on plaster statues of The Sacred Heart and the Blessed Virgin. These statues adorned my mantelpieces, piously, and then ironically, for many years afterwards – growing increasingly chipped and grubby. An objective correlative to their owner's moral decline.

That day a seed was planted that flourished and I became, and remain, a regular and unrepentant gambler. At school later on in CBC Cork I'd hurry across the road to Donnelly's Bookmaker's with my friend Don Murray to catch the first race before afternoon classes resumed. The betting shop was owned by the father of Joe Donnelly, also a bookmaker, but best known for his phantom art gallery on the Vico Road. Over the years there have been highlights: Anglo in the Grand National at 50-1was one and on a famous day in 1963 I encouraged my entire class to back Monawin, successful in the Lincoln at 28-1. My worst day was the one I offered the same class 10-1 against Cassius Clay in his first fight with Sonny Liston. There was a standing ovation when I slunk into the classroom the following morning. I was paying the jubilant wretches off in order of size over the next six months. I remember fondly old handicappers like Be Hopeful, Old Tom, and Damredub (trained by Towser Gosden, father of the far grander John). And a cautionary tale: Years ago I flew to Los Angeles on business and was sitting next to Dermot Weld at the front of the plane. He was the most affable of companions and we discussed art and horses the whole way over. He told me proudly that he'd qualified as the youngest vet on record in Ireland, and urged on me the virtues of Vitamin E for horses and men. On parting we exchanged tips. I told him to buy John Shinnors' paintings and he suggested I back a horse called One More Round - running in Galway the following week. His horse started favourite and finished last - carrying my very substantial bet. Shinnors went on to become, for a while anyway, the darling of the auction houses. Maybe I should stick to the art.