*Beyond Good And Evil: A Review Of David Keenan’s For The Good Times…

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*A version of this review first appeared on the Books From Scotland website. Head there & sign up to their newsletter to never miss an issue.

As regular readers will know, David Keenan’s debut novel This Is Memorial Device was not only Scots Whay Hae!’s favourite book of 2017, but many other right-minded people’s considered choice as well. It announced his arrival as a novelist in such a barnstorming manner that you couldn’t help but wonder how he was going to follow it. Well now he has, and, as we should have expected, he does so with élan, subverting all expectations. His novel, For The Good Times, is set mainly in 1970s Northern Ireland (some memorable away days aside), slap bang in the middle of that none more euphemistically titled time, ‘The Troubles’. 

For those who lived in Ireland and the UK in the ’70s-’90s there are many of the familiar and widely reported touchstones – the H-Block prison and hunger strikes, the Europa Hotel (infamous as the most bombed hotel in the world), Republican & Loyalist groups known best by three letters, gun-fire at funerals, sectarian songs, balaclavas, bombast, and bomb-blasts. Keenan captures the time and place perfectly, not only with such knowledge and detail, but also using music, fashion, and other cultural references to great effect.

The story focuses on narrator Sammy and his closest friends, a group of young Jack the Lads who just happen to be running violent, and sometimes deadly, errands for the Provisional IRA and other offshoots if they’ll have them. Buying into the more extreme mythology of the Republican cause, these boys are playing dangerous games, with a desire to be the cock of the walk as long as that walk isn’t Orange.

Obsessed with the life and style of the singer Perry Como, and dressed in only the best of gear, violence is second nature to them justified by the belief that they are committing it for a worthy cause. To most they are seen as gangsters, thugs, and smugglers, but they have a strong sense of their own worth and shared identity. If Shane Meadows and Martin Scorsese collaborated on the film adaptation of Bernard McLaverty’s Cal then the script may have been something like this, walking the fine line between condemning, or at least demonstrating, the terrible effects of self-righteous violence, and romanticising it.

This may seem like a fairly straightforward premise but Keenan uses it to explore cultural mythology and memory, place, masculinity (toxic or otherwise), the psychology of gangs and groups, and the need for individuals to belong, but also stand-alone. Just when you think you have a grasp of what is going on and understand the essence of what you are reading, things shift just enough to discombobulate. This will not be unexpected to those who read his previous novel which showed a writer almost bursting with ideas – so many that at times what unfolded came close to being overwhelming.

For The Good Times is leaner in terms of ideas and style allowing the story and the characters more time and space to breathe. The result may be a more conventional narrative (it would have to go some not to be), but it makes for an equally satisfying read, if not more so. If you tried This Is Memorial Device and found it wasn’t for you then you should give Keenan a second chance. He’s too good a writer not to.

That’s not to say that he has dispensed with the literary flourishes altogether. There are songs, poems, and comic book stories, and not many other writers would have quotations from the aforementioned crooner Como, Aleister Crowley’s ‘The Master Therion’, and Friedrich Nietzsche. They may seem incongruous bedfellows, but all tell you something about what you are about to read. There are also séances, astral connections, perversions, and rumination on the nature of art, as well as further evidence that Keenan may have an obsession with mannequins.

All of these unexpected detours remind you that this is a writer who is pushing everyone involved out of their comfort zone. He is a player of games but with serious intent, and it forces you to ask questions about what is written, and how. In my review copy the numbers on the Contents page were all “00”. I have since found out that this isn’t deliberate, but with Keenan I wouldn’t have been surprised. With doppelgangers, the bureaucracy of institutions, betrayal, the power of sex, seduction and obsession, and the need to find an identity when others simply want you subsumed, it has clear echoes of George Orwell, Franz Kafka, John Fowles and Milan Kundera.

However, for all the artistry this novel wouldn’t work without the characters being believable, especially when they are thrown into extraordinary circumstances. Keenan shows he has a keen ear for how people speak, but to do so in an accent other than your own throws in another ball to keep in the air. It’s always a risk to take on the voices of a time and place which is so infamous, but from the first sentence to the last the mask never slips, and you absolutely believe these are lives lived. He also understands how people act in their different groups, and how they think and act when they are alone. The bold and the brave versus the insecure and uncertain – this is a world where front can literally be a matter of life and death, and makes you realise that the time and place has been chosen for good reasons.

For The Good Times is a multi-layered novel of extremes set in the most extreme of times (it is also extremely funny). It plays with form and structure, yet, for all its sensational subject matter and style, it is a keen examination of the human psyche, offering hope which is as welcome as it is surprising. But more than anything else there is a truth at the novel’s core. Every sentence – every word – is there for a reason. Clearly written from the heart it will force you to reflect on the people and places which made you, for better and for worse. For David Keenan it is another magnificent, and memorable, achievement and cements his growing reputation as one of the finest writers around.

For The Good Times is published by Faber & Faber Books

David Keenan was a recent guest on the Scots Whay Hae! podcast which you’ll find here – SWH! Podcast With David Keenan.

Talking Books & Telling Stories: The Scots Whay Hae! Podcast Talks To David Keenan…

For the latest podcast Ali spoke to writer David Keenan about his latest novel For The Good Times. After the success of his previous book This Is Memorial Device, (Scots Whay Hae!‘s Book of 2017), it was always going to be fascinating to see how he would follow it, but he has done so in fine style.

The two discuss the setting of Belfast in the ’70s, the personal connections Keenan has to that time and place, and the way language shapes the story. They also consider as diverse and disparate subjects as masculinity, magic, Modernism, sectarianism, Sufism, and song, and that only scratches the surface of their conversation.

It’s always a pleasure, and an education, to listen to David Keenan as there are few writers who talk with the insight, honesty, knowledge and passion about their work as he does. So make yourself comfortable and strap in – this is a podcast not to be missed.

You can read Ali’s initial review of For The Good Times over at the excellent Books From Scotland website. A slightly longer version will appear on these pages in the coming days.

If you are new round these parts there is quite a substantial back-catalogue of podcasts for you to discover. If you aren’t yet a subscriber you can do so, (or simply listen) at iTunes, on Podbean, or by RSS (but you’ll need to have an RSS reader to do so). You can also download the podcast by clicking on the relevant link to the right of this post, or, if you want it right here, right now, you can listen on SoundCloud

..or on YouTube:

Our next podcast will be with one of the most exciting and inventive bands around at the moment. We’ll tell you who that is very soon…

The Good Word: Scots Whay Hae!’s Best Books Of 2017…

 

dsc_06491.jpgYou may have had your fill of ‘Books Of The Year’ lists, but we like to think that Scots Whay Hae!’s selection is small, beautifully formed, and well worthy of your attention.

These are the books which stood out against stiff competition in 2017. The list could easily have been longer but we like to stick to a traditional Top Ten. Consisting of five novels, two short story collections, a musical/historical biography, a collection of journalism, and a peerless book of essays, they take you to Memphis, Airdrie, Springboig and the Alsace, with detours to Firhill, London during the Blitz, New Mexico and Millport along the way. Taken as a whole they are a testament to the breadth of artistic and cultural imagination at large in Scotland today. Need further convincing? Here’s what we thought at the time:

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This Is Memorial Device is spot on in terms of time and place, but it’s so much more than that. It’s rare for a writer to capture both in a manner which avoids nostalgia and feels relevant, but Keenan manages to do so. This is a novel which is about what it means to be young, about the hows and whys – the when and where is less relevant. It’s about youth. Real youth, not the sort of arrested development that is all too common these days. I’ve read it twice and will do so again before too long. At the age of 46 it’s had a palpable effect on me. If I had read it when I was 15, (as happened with The Busconductor Hines and The Wasp Factory),  there’s every chance it would have changed my life. That’s your definition of a cult novel right there.

You can hear David Keenan talking about This Is Memorial Device on the SWH! podcast. Continue reading

Write On: Scots Whay Hae!’s Top 10 Picks Of The Edinburgh International Book Festival…

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From the 12th – 28th August in Edinburgh’s Charlotte Square Gardens once more becomes the place for book lovers to meet, greet, and be merry as this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival takes up its annual residence. It’s an oasis of calm and conversation in a city gone daft, and it is one of SWH!’s favourite places to be. With that and much more in mind, and to help you find something just for you, here are Scots Whay Hae!’s Top Ten Picks of what to see at this year’s book festival.

We have tried to avoid the already sold-out and high-profile to give you an alternative and achievable schedule.

FICTION’S MASTER CRAFTSMAN: James Kelman
– Fri 18 Aug 1:30pm – 2:30pm
UnknownHaving said we have tried to avoid big names, the first pick is one of Scottish literature’s living legends. James Kelman is in town to talk primarily about his latest collection of short stories That Was A Shiver, and Other Stories. There is a body of thought, to which I belong, which believes that while Kelman is one of our great novelists he is an even better short story writer – a master of the art. It is a form which suits not only his style but also the content. What is unarguable is that this is a rare chance to listen to a true artist read and discuss his work. Astonishingly tickets still available at the time of writing, but I would get in there quickly to avoid disappointment. Continue reading

Back And Forth: The Scots Whay Hae! Podcast Talks To David Keenan…

bHQj2XzwFor the latest podcast Ali spoke to writer David Keenan about his novel This Is Memorial Device. Anyone who has read the Scots Whay Hae! review of the book will know how highly we rate it, and it’s fascinating to hear David talk about the influences behind it, why it was always going to be an Airdrie novel, the reasons the book is structured as it is, and so much more.

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The two race through many subjects, including the legacy of post-punk, the importance of the art and music of Scottish small towns and David’s compulsion to write. This includes further novels, his journalism, and non-fiction,  (England’sHidden Reverse  is especially highly recommended) although whether talk of a West Of Scotland take on Lord Of The Rings is serious we’ll leave for you to decide.

We’re calling it one of the most interesting and engaging podcasts yet, but listen for yourselves and see if that’s a bold claim or not. If you aren’t intrigued enough by the end to read This Is Memorial Device then, frankly, we haven’t done our job. Continue reading

Yesterday Once More: A Review Of David Keenan’s This Is Memorial Device…

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What makes a cult novel is hard to define, but here goes. It will alienate as many people as it attracts. It will pitch itself against the status quo, answering the question “What are you against?” with “What have you got?”. It will display attitude, angst, anger and alienation. Such novels are often culturally aware and precisely of their time, yet the best ones are timeless. They are also unapologetic in their attitude of not giving a fuck. You either get it or you don’t. If you don’t, move on – nothing for you here.

Great Scottish cult novels include Alexander Trocchi’s Young Adam, Toni Davidson’s Scar Culture, Martin Millar’s Lux The Poet, and Duncan McLean’s Bunker ManAnd then there’s Trainspotting, which is a reminder that cult does not necessarily mean unknown. Way before the film it was a book which was handed around school playgrounds, and shoplifted from John Menzies. Cult novels should be infamous, not necessarily unfamous or obscure. A Clockwork Orange, Naked Lunch and American Psycho can all be called cult, but are also best-sellers. Jack Kerouac’s On The Road is his great cult novel, rather than the lesser known Doctor Sax. This is because the former chimed with and helped define the Beat Generation, and the latter shows that hanging out at William Burroughs’ house can seriously damage your muse. Continue reading