This week: 'a sad, extended country song without music...'

This week there’s a ferocious satire about good ol’ Britannia, as witnessed by a disgraced (and disgraceful!) Scottish MP. There’s also a story of a failed honeymoon that yields a new and exciting relationship but not without consequences.

A story of a sick and dying horse stranded high in the Nevada mountains prompts a sick and dying man into action. And the diaries of a gay London civil servant, both pre- and post-1967, are explored by a journalist he befriended.

The Fall and Fall of Derek Haffman, TM Nicholls, Sagging Meniscus, €22

In a savage commentary on the loony toon times we live in, TM Nicholls delivers another funny novel, with Derek Haffman as our anti-hero and the UK his playground. Not that he considers it a playground; he takes life far too seriously for that. Later he will inflict himself upon Cadiz, with his charmless partner who sings in a tone-deaf experimental band and her idiot child, who was (of course!) fathered by a Tory. Derek is a Member of the Scottish Parliament, he’s been a waste of space and time for 54 years now, has a girlfriend exactly half his age and a vague notion to distinguish his career in politics. His Great Idea – to pickpocket all of his colleagues in the lobby of Parliament Buildings – goes awry, hence his rapid escape to Cadiz. But opportunity comes calling when disgraced MP and author Jethro Quiver (Jeffrey Archer, anyone?) approaches him with an idea to save himself and resurrect his career. There’s a laugh in nearly every line of this absurdist novel, along with a swipe whenever the chance arises at the state of play in current UK politics, a state of almost total collapse. One laughs lest one should cry, I guess, and this novel prompts tears of mirth. A clever, hysterical farce.

The Honeymoon Affair, Sheila O’Flanagan, Headline Review, €16.99

Izzy and Steve had planned their private wedding and honeymoon in an exclusive resort in the Caribbean. That was until Steve dumped Izzy at the last minute. Her cousin Celeste is the one who finds herself on this ‘honeymoon’ holiday with Izzy instead, and they’re both determined to make the most of it, despite Izzy’s broken heart. Doesn’t stay broke for too long, though, when Izzy meets prize-winning author Charles Miller, who happens to be holidaying alone. They have a wonderful time away and they look forward to meeting up back home in Ireland. Izzy discovers here that Charles’s agent, Ariel, with whom he’s in constant contact, is actually his ultra-glamourous ex-wife. Hmmm…

Charles and Ariel may be divorced, but Izzy’s self-confidence is undermined by the situation. She’s an ordinary customs officer, Ariel is a compulsive partygoer, a bon vivante, a woman-about-town who knows all the right people. And Izzy is not entirely convinced that the spark between these two exes is entirely extinguished. It’s one complication after another and things are bound to blow up. Which, of course, they eventually do. O’Flanagan fans will be entranced.

The Horse, Willy Vlautin, Faber, €16.99

Trying to think of a compact, no-fuss description of this wonderful novel, it struck me that it’s a sad, extended country song without music. It doesn’t need music, it provides its own. Vlautin is a country musician and songwriter with two successful American bands. He’s also a prominent novelist and says that while he enjoys music, his heart is in his fiction. In his seventh novel, we meet Al Ward, a washed-up guitar player and songwriter who’s been a jobbing musician (as opposed to a star) around the less salubrious bars in Vegas and Reno for most of his life. Now in his 60s, he’s taken to the bottle and retired to the assay office of an abandoned mine 6,000 feet above sea level. It’s winter, the snow lies permanently on the ground, his supplies are running low and his car won’t start. He has resigned himself to die there.

One morning he spots a beat-up, half-blind horse, standing in the snow outside his window. The horse won’t move, nor will he eat and drink. He is a slow crucifixion on four legs and Al – because he is a good man, a very good man – is distraught at the animal’s suffering. He’s half-dead himself but can’t let the animal remain like that. Through a series of flashbacks, always veering back to the poor blind horse outside, Al tells his life story, his successes and failures, loves and losses against the backdrop of his persistent alcoholism. It’s not just Al’s story, it’s the story of the American Dream gone wrong, as it has for so many. The prose is so plain and unadorned and humble, like the protagonist himself and it takes your breath away. There isn’t a single spare word. And although it’s a complete heartbreaker of a story, there are tiny sparks within it of room for redemption. Exquisite.

The Diaries of Mr Lucas, Hugo Greenhalgh, Atlantic,€25.50

For the younger guns among us who have never known homosexuality to be a crime (it was only decriminalised here as late as 1993), this book is an eye-opener. For the rest of us, gay or straight, it’s a frequently sad, sometimes tawdry and often humourous look at the life of an English civil servant, an official in the Board of Trade who works for Her Majesty’s Government by day and – until 1967, when he was in his 40s and homosexuality was decriminalised – breaks the law by night, simply by being an active gay man. He died in 2014 and left his diaries (he always kept a journal) to Hugo Greenhalgh, with the caveat that they were not to be published until after his death. Greenhalgh has edited them, slimmed them down, sloughed off the monotonous stuff and offered his own commentary, so that the reader is never bored, is frequently amused, though also saddened at the life Lucas was forced to lead. It’s a vivid account of the underground gay scene in post-war London and a must for social history buffs.


The West Cork Literary Festival runs from July 12 to 19 in Bantry. See for details. The Earagail (Errigal) Arts Festival runs in Donegal from July 13 to 28. See for details.