Something strange happened when I was halfway through reading "The Good Son." I was on my way to work standing on a tube platform waiting for my train and reading the book. Suddenly it was snatched out of my hands and thrown down the platform where it slid off onto the tracks. I turned to see a man in full lady attire and makeup staring at me ferociously. She walked past me while I stared in shock. What just happened? She looked over her shoulder and shrugged while walking away. Looking around I saw a man sat down who shook his head saying, "He/she is crazy!" Anger surged through me and I marched after the man in drag demanding "Why did you do that?" Her eyes were wide and combative. She shouted "Don't get in my face!" over and over. A train pulled up and I got on leaving her on the platform as she was obviously crazy or off her face. It was just a bizarre experience. These things happen now and then when you live in a city. While I was annoyed I'd lost my book, I was more confused as to why someone obviously angry at the world & people in general would take it out on books. Later I tweeted about this strange occurrence and received a kind reply from Blackbird Books in Navan, Ireland who offered to send me another copy. I received the new copy a couple of days later with a lovely note and a nice green tea bag. Please follow them on Twitter at @BlackbirdBks or pop into their shop if you're ever in County Meath. So, although there are crazies out there, my faith in humanity is restored! Now, about the book...
The adolescent narrator Mickey of “The Good Son” is so charming and winsome in his tone of voice you might forget he’s living in the centre of Ireland’s bitter battle between unionists and nationalists were it not for the bracing opening line: “I was born the day the Troubles started.” He’s a dreamy, effeminate boy whose only real friend is his younger sister and who dreams of moving to America to become a Hollywood actor. Mickey is a good student who has been accepted at a prestigious school, but he’s heartbroken when he learns that his parents can’t afford to send him there. Instead he must attend the local and much less prestigious St. Gabriel’s where the majority of the boys who live around him go. The book records the weeks leading up to his start at this new school, struggles with his family and neighbourhood children, his burgeoning sexuality and his accidental entanglement in dramatic events within Belfast’s bloody conflicts.
As befitting the title, Mickey tries desperately to please his mother who is struggling with living on the brink of poverty, her alcoholic husband and her son who has a suspected affiliation with the IRA. Scenes of family life are depicted with warm familiarity and powerfully descriptive lines of dialogue. Here you feel all the accumulation of feeling between family members who navigate through their daily lives together with playfully gentle mocking banter that has undercurrents of a longstanding commitment to each other. There are some scenes which are truly heartbreaking such as when Mickey’s Ma catches him in her purse and starts to punish him, but her reaction shifts when she discovers that rather than stealing he’s putting money he secretly earned into her purse.
It’s fascinating reading about the way Mickey navigates the perilous landscape of his neighbourhood where there is real danger from the warring Catholics and Protestants and the English soldiers. More immediately, he’s alienated from other children his age who mock his “fruity” behaviour. His self-consciousness is captured with agonizing precision: “boys always notice and hate me.” The only connections he find are with children who are habitual glue-sniffers or a girl he’s enamoured with who just wants to use him as someone to practice kissing with. Sometimes Mickey’s narration tips too far into the saccharine as he exhibits enthusiasm for what he thinks of as cool or his dreamy connection with Hollywood films. But being inextricably embedded in his innocence and naivety is necessary for this story as it makes scenes of tremendous seriousness all the more terrifying. It’s particularly effective when he’s taken to task for an insult he’s shouted in the street and he mentally draws back into a fantasy theatre populated by an audience with the likes of Doris Day, John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John, Wonder Woman and Judy Garland.
I found it especially moving reading of the awkward father-son relationship. In one scene Mickey and his father take the boy’s new dog Killer out and he describes it like this: “We walk, not sayin’ anythin’, but that’s OK. Watchin’ Killer is like watchin’ a filim. And you never talk durin’ a filim.” This expertly portrays the companionship of a father and son who don’t speak much, but rather than producing an awkward silence it’s simply a part of their natures not to discuss anything. It’s like a code that they faithfully follow together. The way their relationship changes over the book makes for a compelling plot twist and gives a whole new meaning to the novel’s title.
I admire the way Paul McVeigh confidently took on the voice of an adolescent boy to highlight what life is like when he is trapped growing up within a large unusual conflict. It’s not an easy thing to do. “The Good Son” is a startlingly unique coming of age tale which makes the Troubles come alive through the eyes of a boy who has known nothing else, but dreams of better things beyond it.