Men of absolutely no importance

ALAN MCMONAGLE spectacularly succeeds where most short story writers fail: he creates characters who, however unlikely the scenario may initially appear, by the end of the first page he has the reader convinced such people definitely exist and should, for the most part, be avoided at all costs.

If, that is, you hope to get anything done that particular day, because McMonagle’s characters, to a man, are what can only be described as complete wasters, with the occasional semi-criminal chancer thrown in to soften the mix. All this can be seen in his new collection of short stories Psychotic Episodes (Arlen House ).

McMonagle is the writer Henry Miller could have been if Miller had lived in the era of the Department of Social Protection and been a little less obsessed with describing vaginas. There is also the occasional hint of another Paris-based fiction writer of the 1930s, Samuel Beckett, in some of McMonagle’s tales. In ‘The Good Crank’ we are told: “Lifelong bachelors occupy the rest of our brittle road. Some are blind and some are deaf. So they go around in pairs.”

The narrator in ‘Thai Food’ is quintessential McMonagle: “I had worked as a greeting card salesmen, a data entry clerk, a night watchman at an amusement arcade, and a stock man for a fertiliser company that went bust. At various times I had also been away, seeing parts of the world. I was at a stage in my life when drifting aimlessly from year to year still seemed to be a good idea.”

Tim, in ‘The Spanish Arch Whores’, is another McMonagle prototype: “I had just popped my fifth Demerol and was settling down in front of the extended version of Apocalypse Now when my friend Duffy called. ‘Let’s go and get some ice-cream, Tim’, he said…he wasn’t talking about a dark-of-night shopping trip for Choc Ices and Wibbly Wobbly Wonders. No. What Duffy meant was that he wanted to go down to the old harbour and look for whores.”

McMonagle’s stories are witty in a way that most recent Irish fiction, with the honourable exception of Pat McCabe’s novels, is not. Though McMonagle’s wit is lighter than McCabe’s.

It is hard to imagine most of McMonagle’s characters ever actually having the initiative to kill anyone. Some short story writers feign profundity by writing about dead Mexican artists or the obvious connection between compulsive masturbation and the Iraq War.

McMonagle is a far more honest writer than that. He writes about guys with friendly voices and nothing much to say and all day to say it; the fella in the pub, who in any great national debate is always quick with a joke at every side’s expense, but who will make it safely to the grave without every actually offering an opinion about anything.

McMonagle’s ideal man is a consummate good-for-nothing who, in any scrap, will have you convinced he is with you, absolutely, but who, when push comes to shove, will be detained unavoidably in the lavatory or outside heroically attempting to roll a cigarette.

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