"I'm not Jim Finnegan," starts Kevin Maher. "And the terrible things that happened to him didn't happen to me.” We’re speaking over a crackly phone line and I’m just relieved he doesn’t sound like Jim, or for that matter like any of the other Irish characters from his debut novel, The Fields—not a single fecking eejits or Jaysus in our entire conversation. It’s only when he says ‘teenager’ or ‘fourteen’ with that typically Irish slender “r” that I see the South Dubliner coming through.
I understand why Maher feels the need to disassociate himself from his main character. His book has been called semi-autobiographical in some reviews. He grew up and came of age in 1980s South Dublin, as did Jim Finnegan. He’s the only brother to three older sisters; Jim has five. When he was a kid, his father got cancer—just like Jim’s did—and recovered, though not as miraculously. He spent much of his teenage years listening to pop music and hearing stories of IRA and terrorism; Jim rocks to Foreigner, Soft Cell and Kim Wilde on his Boombox and listens to conspiracies about his (much older) girlfriend’s dad and the IRA. Maher moved to London in 1994 and worked for several years as a waiter; in the book, Jim moves to London and works as a busboy in a fancy Oxford Circus restaurant. “Every single thing I wrote about in the book,” Maher reveals, “I had to know emotionally—all the things that interested me.”
Maher and Jim might share the same context, but their individual stories diverge widely. Fourteen-year-old Jim Finnegan, a typical teenager in mid-1980’s South Dublin, is the voice of this dark yet funny coming-of-age story. He takes breakneck bike rides with his best friend, drinks cans of Lilt, wins the affection of an 18-year-old girl and becomes the victim of abuse at the hands of the slimy parish priest, all while managing to be the most originally comic teenage narrator since Paddy Clarke and Holden Caulfield. A lesson of Wuthering Heights in school turns into a funny ditty on the immaturity of teenage boys—“Heathcliff’s all like, Ah Jaysus, she’s bleedin dead! Feck’s sake! Cathy! Fecking no!!! And Mr. King…asks us to imagine loving a girl so much that we’d want to bash our own heads off a knotty tree trunk for her, even though she’s dead. All the GAA lads snort at this, and say things like, She can knot my trunk any day of the week! Which is totally stupid and doesn’t mean anything, but gets everyone laughing and kind of makes Mr. King stare into space and dream about a time when he might be teaching real-life boys and not a load of complete fecking eejits.”
The humor in Jim’s voice was Maher’s way of keeping himself sane and laughing while writing a book he wasn’t sure would get published at all. At the time, he was working as a features writer, critic and columnist at the London Times, having already put in five years before that as the film editor of The Face and having written film criticism for the Guardian, The Observer and Time Out. “I was pumping out features everyday, writing the book and working like a dog and I thought, if I'm going to miss this time with my wife and my kids, I should at least make myself laugh—because it's kind of pleasurable when you start to giggle because you're writing.”
Choosing to make Jim the narrator was a no-brainer. It meant Maher could talk about the absurdities of that time and Jim’s experience without having to explain them or sound didactic. “You get to make little digs about how mad it all is—14-year-old Jim could just describe his father insisting that he put his initials in his underpants whereas if he was a 29-30 year old looking back, he would have to comment on sexual repression.” Maher uses short sentences, mutates his adjectives – “grabby claws,” “scrapey crazy,” “jokey slap”—and completely does away with speech marks, as devices to sound convincing in a teenage voice. After he finished the manuscript, he did a “polysyllabic pass” to weed out any big words that sounded too grown-up. On the plus side, it meant that Maher could talk about anything without needing to be an expert on it: “He's 13. You can be like, ‘quantum physics is like a big pizza of the universe,’ and get away with it.”
Interestingly, the most difficult portion of the book to read—the parish priest O’Culigeen’s attacks described in a numb jumble of childish disbelief, which makes it all the more disturbing—was not difficult for Maher to write, though it was terrifying, he admits. (“Just imagine your worst fears.”) The bit he did find most challenging, though, for the emotional toll it took and his relationship with his own father, was the last part, where Jim uses his newly gained astral healing powers to attempt to raise his dad from the dead. “Maybe part of me thinks the whole book is this attempt to have a dialogue with my father,” wonders Maher.
That ending has come under much discussion—some like it, some don’t understand it, and others think it’s the only letdown in an otherwise brilliant book. But that hardly matters, because in this picaresque, the strong voice—funny, heart-warming, honest and supremely witty, even as it deals with often disturbing events of abuse, sexuality, abortion and religion in Catholic Ireland—is the star of the show. The Fields is not a book you should read for its conclusion, for where it takes you, but one that you should pick up if you want a fecking brilliant ride.
Nidhi Chaudhry is a freelance writer based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.