Dublin-based music journalist Murphy delivers a sharp sense of adolescence’s gloom and irony in his jaw-dropping debut.
Protagonist John Devine is born into a storm of biblical proportions. The downbeat outlook of his scripture-spouting mother Lily shapes the boy’s life. “You know, people say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” she says. “Don’t believe a word of it. What doesn’t kill you just makes you sick.” Named after the titular gospel song, John is wracked by terrifying dreams of a large, sinister crow and nurtures an unhealthy obsession with a grotesque book, Harper’s Compendium of Bizarre Nature Facts. He also scribbles accounts of his encounters with his Irish village’s denizens, including coarse raconteur Har The Barrel and nosy neighbor Mrs. Nagle. John’s life takes a turn at age 15, when cool, Rimbaud-quoting Jamey Corboy draws him into a brave new world of drink, smoke and the local fauna. Their wild ride together comes to a shuddering halt after John has a breakdown while the toxic twins are desecrating a local church and Jamey is banished to a far-off boys’ home. The revelations here aren’t new; at its core, this strange little volume is really just a coming-of-age story. But Murphy works literary alchemy on every page, filtering the daily tedium of small-town life through John’s bizarre worldview and enriching the story with a caustic humor that still leaves room for genuine moments of friendship and familial tenderness. Punctuated by John’s vivid dreams, Jamey’s lascivious anecdotes and furtive letters, and the irregular observations of a vulnerable young man, this jarring tale of sonic youth dares readers to put it down.
A terrific, disquieting addition to the long tradition of Irish storytelling.