Stuff and Nonsense is more like it: Irish author Nelson’s US debut is a rambling mess, portraying the squalid domestic life of an exhibitionist and his unfortunate family.
Transgressive fiction seems to be in vogue now in Ireland, where the social changes brought on by secularization and economic expansion have engendered a readiness to trash any institution redolent of the old order of things. Nelson spares us the usual rogues’ gallery of sadistic nuns and perverted priests, preferring instead to concentrate on the simpler indecencies of family life. His paterfamilias is a working-class lout named Joe, a small-town socialist who hangs about in pubs, rarely works, never goes to Mass, and likes more than anything to expose himself to children and young couples in the woods. Joe has two “normal” sons in England and a third, rather “odd,” boy named Benjee living at home. He isn’t very fond of Benjee, who reads too much, and he has no use whatever for his morbid and long-suffering wife. Young Benjee, for his part, looks down on Da, daydreams his way through school, and wants to start a band. Mam, understandably enough, considers her husband the worst mistake of her life and when he is in prison invents elaborate stories about jobs abroad to explain his absences to the neighbors. She also compensates for Joe’s repulsiveness by falling in love with Benjee—in a fashion somewhat more than maternal and not entirely unrequited. We are told the story mostly from the perspectives of Joe and Benjee, and the contrast between the father’s maniacal, sociopathic ramblings and the son’s badly thwarted innocence creates most of the scant dramatic tension.
A sorry pastiche of formless grotesques dressed up as a novel.