The thing about December is Donal Ryan’s second published novel but was actually written before his startlingly good debut The Spinning Heart. This fact made me a little hesitant when approaching it as I feared this could have been a case of a publisher digging out an inferior earlier work and foisting it off on the public on the back of the hype. Happily my fears proved to be unfounded as the thing about December is a delight to read.
It tells the story of Johnsey Cunliffe, a character whose fate is referred to in passing in The Spinning Heart. The Novel , set just before the ‘CelticTiger’ economic boom, is divided into twelve chapters each showing us a month in the life of the hapless Johnsey.
Johnsey is, what might be termed by those using the Irish vernacular, a bit ‘soft.’ He is a gentle natured man who works stacking shelves in the local co-op, and lives alone with his mother in rural Ireland, having never cut the apron strings.
The spectre of Johnsey’s deceased father, a hardworking small time farmer who was renowned locally for being both generous natured and someone to be reckoned with if crossed, comforts and torments him. He is comforted by the happy memories he has of the time he spent with his father who obviously adored him, but is tormented by a sense of not living up to his father’s legend.
Johnsey’s recollections of his early life detail the various traumas he experienced growing up and never quite fitting in. Humiliation is a routine part of his experience, usually instigated by the town ‘hard-man’ Eugene Penrose.
Penrose has bullied Johnsey since their schooldays and continues his campaign into adulthood, given ample time to pursue this project due to unemployment. Every day on his way to work Johnsey must run the gauntlet past Penrose and his cronies who are perched drinking cans of cheap booze at their favourite hangout spot.
Despite these trials Johnsey perseveres uncomplainingly, finding security in his simple routine of work then dinner and TV in the evening with his mother. Unfortunately February brings his mother’s unexpected death and Johnsey is left bereft and isolated, struggling to negotiate the world alone. Johnsey becomes increasingly marginalised relying on the indulgence of sympathetic neighbours for the occasional glimmer of compassion and company.
While at first the motivations of the neighbours seem pure we gradually realise that as a consequence of his mother’s death Johnsey has inherited some land which has recently been rezoned for housing by the local council. This renders it extremely valuable. In this light the apparent kindness of Johnsey’s neighbour’s looks a little jaundiced, a detail which Johnsey in his innocence fails to notice at first.
Johnsey’s new found wealth also causes jealousy to rear its ugly head. Eugene Penrose finds Johnsey’s good fortune unbearable which results in him and his lackey’s subjecting Johnsey to a brutal beating. Knocked unconscious and almost blinded Johnsey awakes in a hospital ward.
Such is Johnsey’s loneliness, he finds being in hospital to be quite agreeable, he is fed and there is a constant flow of people around to keep him company. On top of this he becomes rather taken with a young nurse called Siobhán who attends to him. His days are spent in anticipation of her visits.
Unfortunately competition for her attention arrives in the form of a new ward mate, ‘mumbly’ Dave, who has the gift of the gab which Johnsey sorely lacks. Although Johnsey is initially hostile to what he perceives to be Dave’s intrusion, they soon become friends of a sort.
On leaving the hospital a tug of war ensues between Dave and Siobhán for control of Johnsey and perhaps his purse strings.The stage is soon set for a tragic denouement which echoes the infamous Abbeylara incident: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_of_John_Carthy
My only criticism of the novel lies in occasional discrepancies in how Johnsey is portrayed. We are never told if Johnsey is actually mentally disabled in some way or if he has just lived a very sheltered life. Either way some of his observations seem overly astute and incisive for a character who is purported to be so simple-minded. In fact at times he can sound like an author with a fine ear for language rather than a simple man with little interest in literature.
This is a recurring problem with ‘holy fool’ type characters in fiction and is inevitable given the exigencies of plot and literary style. Fortunately it is infrequent enough to be forgivable and one is seduced into indulging the author given his facility with dialogue and description.
On the strength of his first two novels Donal Ryan is shaping up to be a major figure in contemporary Irish fiction. His portrayal of modern life and the consequences of the global economy on small time Ireland are spot on, albeit perhaps a little uncharitable. I would recommend the thing about December to anyone who enjoyed The Spinning Heart and declare myself a convinced Donal Ryan fan who eagerly awaits his next novel.