Friday, January 04, 2013

Garbhan Downey on why Northern Ireland crime fiction is so funny — and so serious

I was ready to put up a second post about Garbhan Downey's novel Across the Line, sparked by this bit of dialogue:
"`Those dirty Fenian bastards,' said Harry, shaking his head sadly."
"Harry" is Harry "the Hurler" Hurley, a Catholic paramilitary leader gone (mostly) legitimate, here enraged because his Protestant counterpart, "Switchblade Vic" McCormick, has schemed to sign a squad of players from the traditionally Catholic soccer team Glasgow Celtic to play for Vic's team in an all-Ireland soccer tournament on which Harry and Vic have a sizeable wager. (Harry had previously pulled a similar stunt for his own team, signing players from Manchester United), and he's outraged to have been outfoxed by his rival, particularly with a team of Catholic players.

Harry's use of the anti-Catholic slur did a number of things for me. It exposed Harry's venality and self-interest. It showed me a Catholic writer confident enough to write words he might not have dared set to paper a few years ago — and a belief that readers in Northern Ireland were ready to accept fun being poked at words they may have heard or uttered in hatred not so long ago. And it was damn funny.

Then Downey surprised me with an e-mail about my first post, which I'd called "Garbhan Downey, humor, and (the specter of) violence."  So, instead of my speculations, I reprint, with his permission, Garbhan Downey on humor and violence in Northern Ireland and the relationship between the two.
As always, you ask very salient questions — in this case as to why Irish writers often use humour as a response to violence.

As I might have said to you before, I have no complete answer, though you've set me thinking again as to why I do it myself.

There are those who often misconstrue our levity as callousness. They believe we've become inured because of prolonged tragedy. “Too long a sacrifice / Can make a stone of the heart, as Yeats would have it.

But I'd contend it's not quite that simple, and we're certainly not heartless. A large part of our humour, I figure, is a defence mechanism to prove to ourselves (and others) that we're not scared of what is often truly terrifying. I say prove to, but I actually mean convince — because the gallows humour is often little more than a thin veil.

For example, in my next book I have included a character called Clack-Clack, who has two artificial knees as the result of a double kneecapping. It's funny because it's the noise he now makes when he walks.

But I can still remember the chill of fear that shot through me when, as a teenager, myself and a pal took a late-night shortcut and inadvertently walked in on a youth being kneecapped by a gang of men wielding hurleys.

I'm not a psychologist of any ilk, but I imagine that to survive in any conflicted society (as ours was until about twenty years ago), it doesn't do any harm to live in an advanced state of denial.

My own experience is that levity can deflect attention from the macabre and puncture the seriousness that violence so often demands. The humour stops us from staring for too long into the abyss. It forces us back to the superficial.

The black humour in my writing reflects a real response, apparent among survivors (by which I mean the entire island of Ireland and many of our neighbours besides).

But, it's also important to note that there has been considerable softening in this humour as the years wear on and peace beds in. People are much kinder now and much less frightened — if at all. Our jokes are more inclined to be about what politician got caught swiping money from the Peace Fund than the gunman who tried to blow his own brains out but missed his ass by three feet.

Not that we're finished with the darkness by any means. There is still a major job to be done satirising the simplistic brutality which went before. And ridiculing it is perhaps one way of ensuring that it never happens again.

— Garbhan Downey
© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Blogger Kelly Robinson said...

I find that the right kind of humor at the right time can be chilling, rather than funny. I'm trying to think of examples and failing miserably, but in film, I keep coming back to Dennis Hopper's character in Blue Velvet. The party scene in particular...people joking in the midst of scary/horrific events points up the creep factor to me, if done in a certain way. It can let you know that a character really doesn't give a damn, and that anything is possible.

January 05, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

For a while after we saw that movie on its initial release, a housemate and I used to shout Dennis Hopper's lines at each other at random and at volume. We thought it was pretty funny, though our neighbors may have found it creepy or terrifying.

January 05, 2013  
Blogger seana graham said...

Thanks for posting Downey's thoughts on this. I remember similar ideas coming up around humor in countries under the Communist regimes and elsewhere. Humor is subversive and irreverent toward those in power who take themselves to be all in all. One of my professors gave a memorable talk once about how comedy invents different solutions to problems than rationality does. I suppose it gives us a way out of our binds. Or, in the case of women, our binders.

January 05, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

One thing to consider about Downey's work is that he's not writing under conditions of war, censorship, or other shackles. Rather, he's writing amid recovery and retrospection about such things. That probably distinguishes his work from, say, underground Soviet-era writing.

January 05, 2013  
Blogger seana graham said...

That's an apt distinction, and I think Garbhan even says something similar in his piece.

January 05, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yes, he does, I found that part of his comments rather moving because it's not the sort of thing one thinks about.

But it does fit in with what I've found fascinating about Northern Ireland crime writing almost from the first: the various ways it deals with the afterlife of the Troubles. Downey's way is one of the more surprising, delightful, and unexpected.

January 05, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

The comic within the grotesque is a useful safety-valve. In our everyday lives, most people finding themselves joking about the most serious issues. Not to do so is a sure path to neurosis and psychosis (if those terms are still used by the docs these days).

As for a different author in a different genre, I offer you Flannery O'Connor. She used the comic in the midst of the most appalling with great effect. Her reasoning--according to her--was that she needed to do whatever necessary to get the attention of the nonbelievers among her readers. All tactics were fair game.

I think Downey and other writers are simply tapping into the foregoing: safety-valves and attention-getting. Each is a valid narrative strategy.

As for another example, I just thumbed through Hammett's Red Harvest and came across the Continental Op's plan to clean up Personville: "I've got ten thousand dollars [and] I'm going to use it opening up Poisonville from Adam's apple to ankles." You read that bit of alliteration, and you know Hammett wanted to say something other than "ankles" but the required restraint upon anal humor kept him from going to that anatomical neighborhood. So, sometimes the comic happens when authors avoid saying the obvious and throw you a slight curve by saying something a bit different. Ah, the comic potential of verbal irony!

January 06, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., Flannery O'Connor, whom I read years ago, is a beautiful example. I think many of today's crime writers who use violence for shock effect would be shamed out of writing fiction if they read her.

I'm not sure I'd analyze the line from "Red Harvest" quite the same way you do. "Adam's apple to ass" is not as comprehensive as " ankles," less suggestive of the complete wipe-out that the Op intends, so I suspect that Hammett was not tempted to use "ass." But I agree that he likely relied on alliteration to suggest the absent "ass."

January 06, 2013  

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