Saint of the City

In 1995, I had the good fortune to spend a while talking to the wonderful Gavin Friday about his third solo album, Shag Tobacco; a spellbinding depiction of a decadent afterhours Dublin peopled with all kinds of sliders, shape-shifters, cross-dressers and drifters. During the course of his illuminatory spiel on everyone from Enrico Caruso to T-Rex, Gavin extolled the genius of Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy, the story of a delinquent child which, he claimed, put that poseur Quentin Tarantino into the shade. Looking back on it now, I realise that Francie Brady, the narrator of that darkly comical and fiercely original tale, was probably about the same age as David Noone would have been back then.

When David asked me to read Saint of the City he merely opined that I might find the lead character, Sean Aloysius Ignatius Augustus Connolly "unlikable”. Sean’s employer, bookshop owner and world-weary sage Frank, tells it to him this way: “Go home and hit the scratcher, you look like the worst form of scuttery shite I’ve seen since I had to plunge the jacks after the wife got over that last bout of constipation.”

Which is why I immediately loved this book.

David’s command of language, and his perfectly gothic vision of a charming psycho carving his way through a contemporary Dublin swathed in the blue smoke of a million cigarettes, chimed perfectly with the memory of both Gavin Friday’s haunted dancehalls and the bright eyes of Pat McCabe’s pig-slaughtering youth. Could this be the impossible lovespawn of Mr Pussy and Da Brady run amok? It is certainly noir fiction with both poise and purpose, not something you can really have too much of in the contemporary canon. A scabrous little tale, swift and compulsive in the telling, which manages to pack a lot of points into a svelte amount of pages.

For one, it lifts up a mirror to our narcissistic times. It skillfully contrasts the concerns of today’s self-harming youth, pouring out tales of mutual misery in safe spaces overseen by politically correct mentors, to previous generations who turned all that hormonal rage and loathing into blistering musical epiphanies instead, as by turn, Sean attends twelve-step meetings and blasts out Teenage Jesus and James Chance from the turntable in Frank’s shop.

“If they can’t handle a bit of The Contortions, they can’t handle a good book,” he reasons, inarguably.

As well as knowing his No Wave, Noone also thoughtfully provides a primer on outsider literature and its place in adolescent experience via Sean’s many sexual conquests, who get as good a going over on the bookshelf as they do in the bedroom.

“Aren’t you a little old for Sylvia Plath?” he asks one.

“She knew what she was doing,” comes the reply.

“What, topping herself?”

“Obviously.”

Later, she hands him a copy of The Marquis de Sade’s Justine as he is leaving, with orders to read if before she sees him again. When he replies that he already has, she retorts: “Well you had better look at it again… It seems you’ve forgotten most of it.”

David’s lightly worn but obviously deeply imbibed knowledge of the darkest strands of music and literature and the importance of both come as something of a relief to an older author still reeling from the fact that, during the 2011 riots that tore through London, probably the safest place to stand to avoid any trouble was in the middle of Waterstones. It’s good to know that these things still matter.  

- from "Darkness at Noone" by Cathi Unsworth