Peter Murphy’s captivating and brutally honest debut tells the story of John Devine, raised by his single mother Lily in a small town on Ireland’s southeast coast. John struggles with bad dreams as a youngster, perhaps brought on by Lily’s mysterious illness, which causes sporadic hospitalizations. By the age of 15, John is very much a loner, with no friends his age, his after school hours spent at the library, his head “perpetually buried in comics and paperbacks.”
Then John meets a new boy in town, Jamey Carboy—another loner, a burgeoning writer obsessed with Rimbaud, a 19th-century author involved in the “decadent” movement, whose members disdained commonly accepted morals. Their friendship gives John something to look forward to each day—a buffer against the underlying worries about his mother’s health that are constantly lurking in his subconscious.
Murphy deftly alternates John’s mostly secret association with Carboy—and his initial forays into smoking, drinking and sex—with his increasingly close relationship with his mother. As if she somehow senses she won’t make it even to middle age, Lily gradually reveals to John how she met his father, what their life was like before pills and drinking made him “very strange” and why she had to leave him when she realized she was pregnant. “You were the savings of me,” she tells John—words he dearly needs to hear.
The novel’s turning point follows a drunken night culminating in John and Jamey breaking into a church and John having one of his “spells”—going berserk and damaging church artifacts before his friend drags him out. Under interrogation the next day, John betrays his friend as the second participant in the break-in; Jamey being the older is charged with the crime and sentenced to a year in the Boys’ Home. To John’s surprise, Jamey holds no grudge, and in fact communicates with frequent letters. “Let’s just blame it on old Rimbaud,” he tells John. ”Maybe we took him a bit too literally.”
Murphy gradually draws the reader into his coming-of-age tale by several means—two engaging characters, an acute sense of their environs and spot-on dialogue that brings them instantly to life. For fans of contemporary Irish fiction, Murphy is definitely a new author to try.
Deborah Donovan writes from La Veta, Colorado.