The hard sell
Irish writer JOSEPH O’CONNOR is used to touching raw nerves. He speaks about his latest novel The Salesman, a tough but enthralling read.
Words: Teddy Jamieson
Imagine, for a moment, that literature is the new football. With a front line of Roddy Doyle and Colm Toibin and with Dermot Bolger solid at the back. you‘d have to fancy that the Irish would already be packing their bags for next summer’s World Cup ﬁnals in France.
Of course. Joseph O’Connor would be at the heart of the team, no question. In truth he‘d have been a regular since his 199] debut Cowboys And Indians. Certainly his latest outing, a novel titled The Salesman, displays the customary blend of silky skills and gritty guile that would make him a deﬁnite for any lrish literary first eleven.
In the real world. the literary exploits of singer Sinead’s 34-year-old brother are unlikely to make the lead story on the back page, but they certainly deserve banner headlines on the arts pages.
His first novel since the excellent Des/wradoes. The Salesman shows a writer on top of his game — compelling. heartrending and constantly surprising. It starts off as a ‘Dirty Harry‘ revenge scenario. The narrator, ex- alcoholic Billy Sweeney. the latest of O'Connor’s ‘dislikeable heroes'. plans to murder Donal Quinn, the man he holds responsible for leaving his daughter in a coma, following a violent attack at a Dublin petrol station. Sweeney kidnaps and tortures Quinn. detaining him in a large aviary at the back of his isolated home. But is he prepared to kill his victim?
‘I always thought what was flawed about that revenge scenario was that I wasn’t sure in real life how many people could go through with that.’ O’Connor explains.
‘I can understand the emotions. I’m sure I would hate Quinn if he did that to my daughter, but just how many of us — if we were in that position where we could actually pull the trigger or press the button that would wipe someone out — would be able to do it‘.”
Sweeney certainly can’t. which doesn‘t bode well when Quinn escapes and torturer becomes torturee.
Violence. both emotional and physical. have soaked into the fabric of O’Connor’s two previous novels, but never has he addressed it so directly.
‘I tried to do it in a way that wasn‘t new lad
106 THE llST 19 Dec 1997—8 Jan 1998
'I didn’t want anyone to be turned on by the violence. l tried to describe it as actually happens, the sickening hanaiity 0f it Joseph O'Connor
0,; ’J ,
‘74,» ,, :/ "/4 ////// I .
Joseph O'Connor's prose resonates like a bell in the heart
culture. where the violence is glamorous.’ he says. ‘I certainly didn‘t want anyone to be turned on by the violence in any way. What I tried to do was to describe it as it actually happens. the sickening banality of it all.
"l‘here is a certain strain of novel coming out written by young men where you wonder just how they could possibly top the violence in them. People tearing their own fucking heads off'.”
What fascinates in The Salesman is the way the plot moves off at a totally unexpected tangent to the typical thriller narrative as O‘Connor moves into more familiar territory — human relationships. The evolving bond between Quinn and Sweeney ultimately casts fresh light on the novel‘s other story — Sweeney's double failure as a husband and father.
On this score. O‘Connor‘s prose resonates like a bell in the heart. Romantic misery is. after all. his forte. His own teenage years were marred by his parents‘ marriage break-up and a series of court battles and custody fights.
‘I guess the appeal of the unhappy marriage story is just always more appealing.‘ he says. ‘l'd love to write a really happy story. It would have to be a slim comic where boy meets girl on page one and everything just goes great for 150 pages. But that would be very hard.‘
O'Connor needn’t stretch himself. At one point Sweeney wishes his words could freeze water. In this form his creator could ice up the Liffey.
The Salesman by Joseph O'Connor is published by Secker 8: Warburg at £9.99.
The write stuff
Johnny Rogan was last heard of when he locked horns with pop’s fop over his biography Morrissey And Marr. He’s back with a book on The Byrds.
NAME: Johnny Rogan.
PREVIOUS JOBS: None. I starting writing straight from university. I only do journalism when I'm asked, I never hustle for it any more. My first book was published when I was at university. I did my first degree at Newcastle, won a scholarship and did a masters degree in Canada, then back to Oxford.
ROUTE TO BECOMING A WRITER: I saved a lot of the money I got for the scholarship, starved myself for about a year and went to Hollywood to hang out and do some of the interviews for this book. I wouldn't say it's been a burning ambition from the age of ten or anything, I just kind of evolved into it and I've never looked back.
DAILY ROUTINE: If anything, it's become more anarchic over the years, rather than more ordered. When I'm in the midst of a book, I usually stay up till eight in the morning and get up at four and I blot out every human being on the planet and every other distraction. The phone is off the hook. INFLUENCES: It sound pretentious but all the classical ones, Spenser, Shakespeare and hundreds of other English and American writers. AMBITIONS: To continue what I'm doing more successfully. The more commercially successful my books are, the more likely it is that I can do more weird and wonderful projects. FEARS: Only current everyday ones - 'am I going to finish this on time?’ or that kind of thing. It's more of a realisation than a fear, a run against time to complete those remaining books
INCOME: Erratic. Extremely erratic. It’s never going to go above £30,000 a year but it fluctuates wildly.
s: The Byrds Timeless Flight Rove/ted by Johnny Rogan IS published by Rogan House at [20