For The Good Times – David Keenan (Faber & Faber)
Bear with me. Someone where I live put two recycling containers out in the kitchen, rather than the usual one. One for raw food, the other for cooked. From now on, raw food went in the compost bin in the garden and the cooked in the bin.
Since then there have been questions over eggshells, the seemingly cooked, and hippy tea leaves. These are cooked as far as I’m concerned, but according to some, they are to be placed in the Eden of Decomposition and Beautiful Regrowth, rather than in the Landfill Hell of Rot and Eternal Death.
Under it all was Levi-Straussian deep structure. It was amusing that the original advocate of this two-bin system was French. The unconscious was fully up and running throughout this period, on both sides of the conversation, those for and against.
David Keenan, if he had lived here, might have written it up. Keenan can seemingly time travel and wander into a locale before doing there what my head did to the double bin recycling system: Keenan is a bloody good structuralist, and you need to be one to be a great novelist. He is.
For The Good Times opens in the 1981 of the Belfast hunger strike. H-Block, the end of the 1970s. But the first proof that Keenan is a great structuralist – and therefore novelist – arrives with Perry Como and Frank Sinatra. You heard right. Or rather, with the arrival of the Comocipher and the Sinatrasign.
Keenan writes for Wire magazine and this novel is often filtered through popular culture. Weird discussions about U2 and the fact that Hawkwind are completely anti-establishment bubble up, with a man called The Dark Destroller.
But this isn’t a busman’s holiday being taken on Faber time. It is essentially an act of translation. Because how could you go back and explain the roots of the split in Christian religion across the British Isles, and the shift from Fenian struggles to the IRA, and still have any words left ‘to do a novel’? The results would fail to pull you through anyway.
The pop-cultural is the universal language which the old world lingo is being translated into. It is as much an act of translation were it converted from French to English. The credits should read ‘all rights reserved, David Keenan, 2019. Tranlated by David Keenan.’
The Comocipher – and the mostly absent Sinatrasign – become tap dancing signifiers which morse the moral underworld back to us. Como is the wholesome recycling container, Sinatra the horrible waste dinner hole:
‘And fuck Frank Sinatra he was a dissolute cunt. But Como never cursed, never smoked nor drank. Plus he was always faithful to his wife.’
That Como never cursed comes straight after profanity. The Sacred and the Profane, a core that maps outwards again onto Protestant and Catholic, English and Irish, Monarchist and Republican, Enemy and Friend.
At its core this book is about the impossibility of containing the Sacred and Profane on separate plots. It comes up again and again in For The Good Times. The impossibility of containing Protestant and Catholic on separate plots – which was less impossible than mixing them, to be fair – and the impossibility of keeping the Sinner away from the Saint, even when they were in the same body.
Two young IRA go to hit up a bad debter and he’s a double of one of them. Things go weird. The binaries are always being eroded. The young IRA boys’ mams all love the queen, as the queen’s soldiers raze their neighbourhoods. The irrational is right at the surface, but the human subject is submerged in itself and so doesn’t see this. The wholesome is always slipping, you have to grab on to it before it slides into hell, redeem it, and yourself… the unconscious is always an agent: There is always ‘sin’ in Sinatra, but Como sounds a little like coma. Barney comes back badly beaten and the treatment triggers all kinds of scrambled jokes with truths in them.
The ‘troubles’ were the unconscious in Britain, a full war and the rest of the country acting like there was no war, just a bit of bother. I remember the Belfast displaced at the University of Wolverhampton. Drinkers and headcases. I remember my friend Tony’s stories about what they did more. He was properly plugged in. They were a spyhole into the secret country. Like when I go to the supposedly healthy big compost bin out back and actually look as I tip the stuff in this time. Giant green luminous slugs and crawling with worms, crawling with worms. The slugs and worms are us, not the Fenians. Writhing through we know not what blindly.
The strange hanging strips in the novel seem to contain David Bowie’s duet with Bing Crosby in 1977, as the Maze Prison horrors intensified. Bowie guilt-trip catapulted back into the world of wholesome schmaltz after years of sin. ‘Schmaltz’ is also poultry fat, it is grease. In Poland and the Ukraine, stock fats are ‘smalec’. Back to food again, the raw and cooked.
You can access that level of depth via this novel. You can take it as a thrilling, riffing ride through the darkest side of bleak Britain in the 1970s. It is both. It gives you access to either and/or both simultaneously and that makes it great art.
Another level of translation is going on which shows the greatness of the craft. Keenan knows it only takes a ‘Jayzus’ here and a ‘flappy disc’ there to tell us the speech is Irish. His use of English has just enough underlying syntax to trigger the ‘Irishness’ we already store in our heads. That’s skill. James Kelman would give you every spit of inflection. Keenan does that somehow without blistering the text with irregular spelling. I’m not stating a preference here, both are ways into the problem, and both work. It seems to thicken though, about 200 pages in. Keenan seems to bring you in gently and when you’re finished you’re talking to yourself in your head like an IRA footsoldier.
Keenan writes a sequence in which three main characters take acid and go to a Clash gig. Legend has it you can’t write sex. But the history of accounts of tripping in modern literature really does look like a landfill. Keenan pulls it off in style – and connected to the rest of the work – with barely an adjective. Which, of course, is exactly how you do it.
Other signs and ciphers, snakes, and superheroes, and the whole of the Falkland War drops in via a short, sick Simon Weston joke. That’s economy. The Europa Hotel, Belfast, is now loaded in a particular way. A character called Miracle Baby with ‘learning difficulties’ is connected. As someone who isn’t taken seriously, thought of as ‘harmless’. He gets given information. He is in the lineage of the fool who speaks the truth. It brings Lear in, and it is that savage and bloody. But there’s a sharp understanding of what the ‘occult’ is here. Someone in touch whose senses are tuned differently. It’s the occult as Colin Wilson figured it.
This is a very different book to a forthcoming novel by by Ian McGuire, The Abstainer. That novel seems fatted for a TV slaughter. Keenan’s book is part of a less compromising literary tradition. But both books have the peelers chasing a bunch of terrorists in a shattered land of sheer contradiction and hypocrisy. Holy Wars on home turf? They never went out of fashion! Both books are essential in 2020 as a far right English government takes power. English, not British, let’s get this right, at the same time as the tension in that binary wants to go up like semtex.
For The Good Times is an autograph written on a plastic bullet for a young admirer by an IRA hitman. This book is the Filthy Truth, smearing its greasy data back onto the Clean Lie of harmony across the 1990s and 2000s. A kind of brilliant dirty protest against provincialism, amnesia and straight stupidity.
– Steve Hanson