Some books grab you with a voice so strong and distinct you can’t help listening. The narrator in “The Thing About December” follows a young man named Johnsey in a rural Irish town over the course of a year. He lives under the shadow of men whom he considers to be great and feels himself to be a total loser. He’s often steeped in fantasies where he becomes a hero – often with semi-clad women clamouring after him, but in reality his actions are awkward and nervous leading him to be bullied and ignored and misunderstood. Amidst the calamitous year that’s covered he becomes caught in the middle of a hyped-up property boom that causes attention to cluster around him with everyone seeking their own slice of the pie. Johnsey also makes a couple of close friends in the two brilliantly realized characters “Mumbly Dave” and the nurse with the “beautiful voice” Siobhan. However, most of the time Johnsey spends his time (as he puts it) “sitting on his hole” while a maelstrom of dramatic events take place around him.
There are several things which cause Johnsey’s story to come so alive. Most obviously, the Irish vernacular of both the narrator and dialogue of the characters makes them powerfully realistic. Often these idiosyncratic descriptions come with more heavily-laden meanings. Seemingly offhand comments become wise and sombre observations about human nature and the insignificance of individual lives in the grand scheme of things. Johnsey’s stance as a solitary quiet figure brings forth a lot of sharp observations about the difference between the internal and external world. “A man is only safe inside in himself. There’s nothing people won’t do or say when they think right is on their side. Who decides what’s right?” Remaining closed to the outside world he's able to maintain his own sense of integrity (no matter how self-deprecating) and understanding of what is right. He realizes that people are driven by their own self belief which will often clash with his own understanding of the world.
Johnsey tries to remain on his own. However, he knows that being caught in his own thoughts can have a deteriorating effect on the mind: “Too much thinking could balls you up rightly. Your mind could start acting like a video player, showing you your own thickness.” He desperately wants to engage in some social interaction but it’s a tremendous struggle. There's a heartbreaking recollection from his teenage years when he attempts to go to a local dance which ends disastrously. The result is an understanding that “For a man to be lonely, Johnsey knew, he did not need to be alone.” Sometimes the company of others can only make you understand how different and excluded you are and so increase your sense of isolation even more.
Crossing the boundary between inertia and action is near impossible for Johnsey, but doing so is the only way of achieving real self-knowledge. “Sometimes you didn’t know how you would feel about doing a thing until you went and did it. And then it’s too late; you can never undo it.” There can be both positive and negative consequences of breaking through your own hesitancy and taking action. On the rare occasions he does so he discovers how tricky it is dealing with people in reality rather than inside his head. “People are better inside in your head. When you’re longing for them, they’re perfect.” His interactions reveal both his own inadequacy and the shortcomings of those around him. However, as the progress of time shows it’s impossible for him to remain an island. His personal space is invaded and he must learn how to react and engage.
Amongst other things, this is a book about mourning. Not only does Johnsey lose people who are important to him, but he loses his idealized versions of the world. He discovers that “sadness plus sadness equals more sadness.” No revelations about life or special faith in humanity rise out of the ashes of what is lost. It’s a cold hard fact. For some time he lives off from the kindness shown to him after experiencing tremendous loss. But he learns that “Sympathy doesn’t last forever. Like a pebble thrown in a river, it’s a splash and a ripple and gone.” He must accept his loss and move on with his life.
Since this novel is plotted out over the course of a year and follows each month it is moreover about time. Not only does it record the events which happen in Johnsey's life each month, but the way his mind loops back to thoughts of his parents and the deep loss he feels for time lost. In a sense he wants things to remain constant and unchanging so he recalls what traditionally happens on the farm each month. But nothing remains the same: “that’s the way time is – it’s not a constant either.” Dramatic events can cause life to speed up at a pace he finds hard to keep up with. As the world progresses and changes around him so must he. For someone so inhibited this is painfully difficult for Johnsey to accept.