Full of skill, scorn and telling insights

by John Boland

Dermot Bolger’s first full-length novel in a decade is an absorbing account of the last whimpers of the Celtic Tiger

Dermot Bolger’s last work of fiction was the 2012 novella The Fall of Ireland, which was set in a country whose economy had just collapsed and whose government ministers were destined for political oblivion with nothing to console them but “the vast depths of their pension pots”.

There are no government minsters among the characters in Tanglewood, Bolger’s first full-length novel in a decade, though the people encountered here are even more venal – not least unscrupulous property tycoon Paul Hughes, whose much-publicised personal life involves “seducing girls half his age by flying them in private planes for intimate dinners in Tangiers”.

The same gentleman (though he’s most definitely not that) finally decamps to America with his wife and with “whatever cash he could scavenge, hours before receivers were appointed to his sites”, but his role in the book is more of a baleful presence than a fully realised character and he functions mainly as the engineer of its plot.

And the story is very well plotted as two middle-class Blackrock neighbours, Chris and Ronan, the former under considerable duress, are encouraged by their old schoolmate Hughes to build a town house that will straddle their back gardens and make them a small fortune when the tycoon acquires it for his elderly mother.

But this is the spring and summer of 2007, and though neither civil servant Chris nor chartered surveyor Ronan can yet hear the final whimpers of the dying Celtic Tiger, they become uneasy when Hughes fails to make promised repayments – their unease descending into nightmare one drunken night when they find the body of one of their Eastern European workmen at the site, seemingly the victim of a fall from shoddy scaffolding.

What’s to be done? Ronan assures Chris that “good men do bad things to protect their families”, though there’s been little to recommend Ronan himself in his frantic bid for acceptance by Hughes’s elite circle in the Playright pub.

“Not a bad man, but a little man,” is the verdict of one foreign worker, and Ronan’s much younger new Filipino wife reaches much the same conclusion.

But the reader is invited to feel for the dithering Chris, whose fragile relationship with troubled spouse Alice is at the novel’s emotional core. Indeed, the book’s title echoes lines from a Thomas Kinsella poem that Chris recalls from his schooldays about two tree trunks wrapped around each other “in their infinitesimal dance of growth”, much like Alice and himself.

It also refers to an idyllic lakeside development outside Toronto that Alice had been told about on a youthful visit to the Canadian city, but there’s nothing idyllic for her about the Blackrock of the boom years, whose main street “throbbed with the perfumed aphrodisiac of prosperity” with “long-legged trophy girlfriends drinking exotic beers from long-necked bottles…as if they and their boyfriends owned the world”.

Eventually, as we all know, the party ended, though if the reader may have wondered at the outset whether yet another cautionary story about the demise of the Celtic Tiger was really needed, Bolger skewers the pretensions and pomposities of its villains and dupes with more skill, scorn and telling insights than most who’ve attempted the task.

But then he’s always been an outsider by nature, whether as founder of the Raven Arts press in 1977 , where he encouraged a whole generation of writers who might otherwise have found publication difficult (but many of whom later became famous), or as co-founder of New Island Books in 1992, which performed much the same function.

And in his own books, his sympathies have always been with the alienated and the adrift.

In Tanglewood, there’s a chapter towards the end that’s seen from the perspective of Ezal, a watchful and taciturn East European who has had to flee atrocities in his native land and ends up encountering on a Blackrock building site the man who was responsible for the death of his loved ones. In a mere 12 pages, you become so engrossed by this man and his story that you wish a whole novel had been written about him.

The author is just as good with some of his other secondary characters. A visit by the youthful Alice to her estranged aunt Patricia makes you keen to spend more time in the company of this outspoken woman, while Chris and Alice’s concerned teenage daughter Sophie is portrayed with real affection and insight.

A stern editor might have trimmed the book of repetitive tendencies – the soul-searching showdowns between Chris and Alice occasionally become as wearying to the reader as to the agonised combatants – and it’s debatable whether the plot convolutions late in the book are entirely persuasive.

But this is a notable and absorbing account of an Ireland “where everything was measured by possessions”, where speculators became “absentee landlords” in countries that hadn’t formerly existed, and where local tycoons like Paul Hughes were “always only chicken shit compared to the real players, who already owned most of London and New York”.

And now house prices in Blackrock and other desired urban enclaves are reaching dizzying levels again, which means that it would be unwise to categorise this book as an historical novel.

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