For the Good Times by David Keenan – review
Styled as a fanzine writer’s attempt to put together an oral history of a cult 80s rock band, David Keenan’s excellent 2017 debut This Is Memorial Device came over like an unadvertised homage to Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, replacing avant garde Latin American poets with the post-punk scene in suburban Scotland.
In Keenan’s new novel, a more sinister environment comes in for the same half-loving, half-mocking, faintly unhinged treatment. For the Good Times is narrated by a jailed republican foot soldier, Sammy, who recalls doing the IRA’s dirty work in 70s Belfast with a debonair gang, for whom a neat pocket square and an ability to hold one’s own on the relative merits of Frank Sinatra and Perry Como count nearly as much as knowing how to rig up a bomb or carry out a kidnapping.
Keenan generates an anarchic voltage from how suddenly events change direction, or get catastrophically out of hand
Sammy’s memories pivot on his friendship with a fellow republican, Tommy, whose father helps them make their name among paramilitary high-ups when he tips them off about a hidden stash of weapons from Libya.
But things sour once Sammy and Tommy get involved with the same woman, Kathy, a waitress they’re ordered to abduct to make her husband settle a debt he owes for running a shop on IRA turf.
Despite being held hostage, Kathy gives her captors as good as she gets – she’s no victim – which is one of the reasons to wonder what Keenan is up to when she later seduces Sammy in a nightclub toilet, her abduction apparently forgotten.
While the novel turns out to be smarter than you would guess from this moment, Kathy’s fantasy-woman act – added to the heavily stylised violence – raises one or two early doubts about Keenan’s purpose. Witness the opening scene, in which Tommy randomly blasts passers-by from the roof of a speeding car while belting out Como, or the passage in which Sammy announces that 1977 was “about to be the bloodiest summer of our lives. And I decided to kick it off in style”, prior to shooting dead a suspected traitor in her sleep.
Yet any sense that Keenan is glamorising the bloodshed rubs up against the relentless pratfalls complicating Sammy’s operations. Retrieving that arms cache entails ending up waist-deep in sewage; one early-morning assassination has to be passed off as stag-do shenanigans when a homeless man buttonholes Sammy just as he’s trying to dump the victim’s body in a bin. At one point, his commander says, “Stop acting like fucking clowns... see if the IRA could dispense with Irishmen altogether, we’d be one fuck of a formidable fighting unit.”
Bumpkin comedy is a steady source of fun here. “Who’s your man? Your man what did all the paintings,” asks Tommy. “Plenty of guys did the paintings,” says Sammy. “That doesn’t fucking narrow it down much. I’m talking about your man Picatsto... What do you know about Picatsto?”
A visit to Glasgow proves eye-opening, not least when, while attempting to lie low, the pair find themselves invited to an orgy, and Sammy tells us he’d “never seen a fucking shaved pussy in my life, you were lucky to get a fucking clean pussy in Belfast”.
Keenan generates an anarchic voltage from how suddenly events change direction, or get catastrophically out of hand. But as Sammy suspects infiltration and betrayal afoot, his tale – part farce, part history lesson – offers the conventional pleasures of a thriller, too, while reminding us how the rights and wrongs of any conflict are always a matter of perspective (Sammy, we come to realise, is speaking for the benefit of an unseen English interlocutor).
Yet it’s far from preachy, and with so much going on – from dream sequences to segments recasting the action as a superhero adventure – it proves alarmingly easy to forget what we’re actually reading: the unrepentant testimony of a cold-blooded killer.
• For the Good Times by David Keenan is published by Faber (£12.99). To order a copy for £8.99 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99