REVIEW BY CATH BARTON
It is the late 1970s. Mickey Donnelly is 10 years old. He lives in Ardoyne in West Belfast. Mickey has passed his 11+ exam and has been offered a place at St Malachy’s Grammar School. But he is told that his family cannot afford to send him there.
In The Good Son, Belfast-born Paul McVeigh tells the story of the nine weeks of Mickey’s summer holidays before he goes to secondary school. He tells it through young Mickey’s eyes, conveying all the spark and wild dreams of a pre-pubescent boy. Ardoyne is a Roman Catholic area more or less surrounded by Protestant areas. It is not safe anywhere in Ardoyne, for this is the time of the Northern Irish “Troubles,” when sectarianism violence can erupt on the streets at any time. Mickey is quite matter-of-fact about the reality of this. He has grown up with it, although he’s only ever seen Protestants on TV. On an errand to a shop by the iron barricades which mark a boundary between Catholic and Protestant areas he says:
“They’ve started calling them peace lines which really makes me laugh cuz actually this is where people come to kill each other.”
Mickey is innocent about the worst atrocities and we can laugh at his misunderstandings. When he is heard shouting in the streets about another child’s father being in prison for stealing sausages he gets a visit from one of the Ardoyne Hard Men to set him straight about the man having “fought hard for his country.. But Mickey is still confused:
“They wanted him to steal sausages? Why? Were they hungry? And could they not just buy them from the butcher’s like everyone else? There’s no way I’m ever going to join the IRA if that’s the kinda missions you get sent on.”
There are more immediate issues that concern Mickey day-to-day. As he dodges through forbidden streets, his pre-occupations are looking after his mother, the mysteries of sex, and the initiation torments which await him at St Gabriel’s secondary school. His dream is to go to America, where he plans to work in a diner. And one day, he tells his Ma, he will be President of Ireland, because he is a good boy. Like all small boys though, he does not differentiate between large and smaller ambitions. He is given a five pound note with which to go shopping and he knows it’s a lot of money:
“One day, when I grow up, I’m goin’ to have a five of my own and I’m goin’ to spend it all on sweets.”
Mickey Donnelly is truly, at heart, a good boy. The guile of adolescence has not yet infected him and he loves his Ma, his little sister Wee Maggie and his dog Killer—who makes him “as happy as a pig in poo”—with a protective ferocity. When he spies Ma through the fence, railing against a world in which she has married a drunken waster, he begs her to give him a job in the house so he can help her out.
In this family, a slap round the head is more common than a hug and sorry is not a word used very often, but there is laughter and underneath there is palpable love. Paul McVeigh navigates the choppy sea of Mickey’s shifting experiences and rapidly-changing emotions with skill and verisimilitude. Having lost food coupons which he had been given for shopping, the boy devises a way to repay his Ma by chopping up wood to sell round the houses, getting his hands full of painful splinters in the process. When she finds out she talks to him with uncommon tenderness:
“ ‘My son,’ she says, and her body sort of shudders. She shakes her head. ‘Your wee hands are destroyed.’ She traces the splinters and welts with her fingers.”
Next minute she’s wiping her eyes and flying at an accusing neighbour with the hatchet that Mickey uses to chop his wood.
Mickey may live during the Troubles with a capital ‘T,’ and he gets often into trouble with a small ‘t,’ but I don’t experience him as a troubled character. Yes, he is often confused, but aren’t we all confused as children? Yes, he suffers heartbreak, but is that not part of growing up? Mickey is an intelligent boy and he has a strategy for survival—he acts. He’s seen lots of films on TV. He knows how to look cool—he practices the Ardoyne Hard Man Dander, chest puffed and knees pointed out as he walks. Other boys may call him names because he’s a loner, but he’s plucky and resourceful and he cares about other people. When he sees a bunch of girls chanting insults at one who has been tarred and feathered he wants to rescue her:
“Even though she’s a Brit-lover, I don’t think it’s right. I mean, you can’t help who you fall in love with.”
At the end of the summer of this story, Mickey works out a way to help his Ma and possibly even get himself to America. Possibly. Whatever the difficulties of his life, it is not, at least at the point where this story ends, tragic. Though we are bound to wonder what will become of young Mickey.
In The Good Son Paul McVeigh traces the physical geography of Ardoyne with as much precision as he depicts the geography of the human heart. As a reader you run up and down those streets with Mickey, onto the wastelands where kids sniff glue and bombs explode unpredictably. He navigates the tricky first person narrative style with assurance and peoples the story with vivid characters. Fartin’ Martin, Ma’s-a-Whore and Minnie the Tick Woman may sound like the names of caricatures, but they step off the page as realistically as young Mickey himself and as brightly as the characters in Mickey’s favourite film, The Wizard of Oz.
Mickey Donnelly deserves to take his place in the litany of boy literary heroes. Paul McVeigh’s prose sings from page one in the accents of the North Belfast streets, and is rich in detail. While The Good Son does not have the same breadth, it has something of the spirit of Dickens or Zola, transformed for our times. Gritty realism with a human face. Not only is it hugely enjoyable, but it also conveyed to me more of the atmosphere of the Troubles than any number of factual accounts.