Book Review: From Out Of The City by John Kelly

Space issues forced this to get snipped back in yesterday’s Sunday Independent. Here, in all its splendour, I give you the full monty…


Publisher: Dalkey Archive Press
RRP: €10.50

WERE we to draw a loose literary-fiction line starting with crime writing set in today’s Ireland and ending, say, in the feral knife gangs of Kevin Barry’s City Of Bohane, somewhere in the middle would sit From Out Of The City. John Kelly sets up shop in 2040 Dublin, 13 years ahead of Bohane, but where Barry bludgeons the west coast, Kelly crimps and lacerates the Fair City. Barry scraps technology whereas Kelly gaily satirises the social and political warpings of internet culture and globalisation gone too far.

The affable arts broadcaster has sculpted our beloved capital into a place of anarchy and environmental disarray within a puppet police state and a muscular “European Alliance”. The furiously detailed reconstruction makes enough wholesale changes to excite, but keeps just enough (delayed Darts, gannets on Ireland’s Eye) to harry the pull of outright sci-fi. It is only 26 years away, after all. Speculative, yes, but rooted weirdly in the all-too-familiar.

It can be hard to keep up with the somersaults of Kelly’s imagination and the deep, penetrative humour which soundtracks much of this warped conspiracy noir. Monk (named after ivory maestro Thelonious) is our octogenarian narrator, eavesdropping and spying from his Dun Laoghaire flat on Schroeder, a sacked Trinity lecturer getting sucked towards the shooting of a US President during a State visit to Dublin. This is Monk’s confessional, and persistent reminders come that “this is no thriller or makey-up tale of suspense”, and is simply the events as they played out in a time “when dysfunction was everywhere and anywhere”.

Subsisting on Stolichnaya and pills, Schroeder is like a half-cut stranger staggering around a carefully set chess board, powerless as the gods conspire to put him in the path of conspirators, touts, shady secret agents and bad sorts who may have a stake in the shooting. Femme Fatales, like the mysterious Chantal and the seductive news reporter Paula Viola, torment his loins enjoyably. Pieces pop up or disappear around him as the final act approaches, but there is little he can do except exasperate through a hangover.

The chess board itself is something to behold. US kowtowing has led to an aircraft carrier setting up residence in Dublin Bay, to the point that it is “as normal as the Sun”. Dun Laoghaire “grins grotesquely” at the waters (“polluted beyond all salvage by plutonium, uranium and flesh”) “like a mouthful of rotten teeth”. Temple Bar is a no-go-zone of cutthroat bars and drug and smut snake pits. Protestors are mowed down by troops outside Leinster House and Phoenix Park, now a US military base called “Fort Phoenix”, has lost all its deer to a deranged marine with a machine gun. It turns out there is a lot of low-down dirty fun to be had watching one’s hometown sullied so thoroughly.

Monk is less the omnipotent narrator as the suburban know-it-all. He speaks about his rooms chock full of screens, files, scribbles and notes, and with the detail in the novel’s charged prose scuttling about the page you start to imagine a similarly obsessive Kelly homestead. References wink at you during paragraphs. Etymology of Dublin placenames is nerdishly explained while it’s probably no accident that he namechecks Pere Ubu, Suicide, The Fall and New Order. Some bypass you if you’re not careful, so you stay alert, even during those phases where Schroeder is between dangerous liaisons.

If Dublin survives without degenerating into Kelly’s devilish cesspit, you can imagine From Out Of The City taking on classic status, like a Terry Gilliam film that needs time to be fully absorbed and appreciated. He gets rough, for sure, but there is indeed “a modicum of love” at work in the way he crafts so much from what probably presents itself on the commute into Montrose. Sooner or later, the One City, One Book committee may even cast its eyes on Kelly’s charged, whipsmart and hugely entertaining literary cartwheel and decide that if ever there was a writer who put their own stamp on this town of love and hate, it was him.

First published in the Sunday Independent




Published by

Hilary A White

Dublin-based arts journalist and reviewer, specialising in film, books, music and human-interest stories. Sunday Independent / Irish Independent / / RTE Radio 1 / Today FM

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