Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

'Shut up,' he explained. Man-talk / editors and the demotic / the Inchoate vs the Good-in-school.

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I ‘m trying a bit too hard to get the voices right in two characters, friends since childhood, in this novel. To that end, I head back every day to refine what they say, and to rewrite – often minute details – parts that I thought were long ‘safe’ / ‘finished’/ ‘in the can.’ There is no ‘can’ apparently. Hearing their voices more and more clearly each day, and having them mutter away in the back of my mind, makes this editing necessary. It can be annoying, but I do keep that saying visible above the desk at home: ‘Books are never finished. They’re merely abandoned.’ (Wilde?)

This book is new departure from the usual. I just have to get the demotic Dublin voices onto the page exactly as they speak. There is no room for the sly circumlocution that marked the ‘culchie’ talk of characters in the Minogue series. But this combination of man-talk and demotic idiom, especially in the dialogue, is going to case problems, I’m sure…..

‘Shut up,’ he explained.

It is hard to improve on Ring Lardner’s immortal line. That laugh-out-loud line hurled me into the likes of Damon Runyon and Raymond Chandler, and had me re-reading Hemingway. For a long time the hard-boiled, stoical, taciturn male was a character to follow in literature. It rang true, this talk, this person revealed; it was also terribly funny. I also knew (somehow!) what was left unsaid in this dialogue, and even ‘heard’ it too. These sparing, often clumsy, bitten-off words were the very acme of real and gritty.

This kind of talk is a form of boy-talk It runs close to funny most of the time, even in tense situations. It seems to divert too easily into 3 stooges territory too. It’s often combative, jostling, full of mockery and slagging, even amongst friends. It says, I suppose, that we have not moved on much from the cave-mouth. But this boy talk, and its hand-boiled so-called gown-up analogue, need not be a Lord of the Flies scenario. Really, it’s not always hazing and hockey dressing rooms.

God, but were they ever a relief from the refinements of characters in Austen and even Dickens. Here are real people, I was sure. Okay, dialogue could easily veer into cowboy talk or hillbilly talk, both sitting ducks for parody. We still talk in made-up-hillbilly accents for extended periods. All very amusing until you listen to someone sing a country song acapella, a cowboy favourite, a ballad. It doesn’t matter if it is sung off-key, or some of the words are makey-uppey. Out the window goes the glib put-down and the sly, superior mockery. If you keep your wits about you i.e. stagger your drinking properly time-wise you will see a stunning sight in a rural pub, when a man abruptly abandons a world not much removed yet from Maupassant’s Mere Sauvage, and frees himself into a song - a statement made in tender innocence and longing.

There is real feeling nestled in man-talk. There is nothing sentimental about it though. Forget the current bro-mance vibe, where’ guys’ have thrown away the nod in favour of hugs, ghetto hand gymnastics and –God help us – reminders to ‘Take care’ (the opposite is often what makes life worth living). It may be unrefined and shoved together in rattling phrases and sentences. It may be full of gaps and references that are opaque (descriptions of diesel issues, for example). It seems deceptively simple, and even simpler to copy. Yearly Hemingway-style writing parodies can tell you all you need to know there.

Man-talk came to me maybe like water to Mesopotamia.

a) From my parents. My father - a Dublinman with an education – contributed a very unpredictably harmonious blend of near-Victorian idiom that was de rigeur for an aspirant to respectability in the Ireland of his day, larded with tons of rough gurrier expressions that thickened the air in Dublin (though he was a quiet maestro of these expressions, I heard him swear only once), and given the coupe the grace with haunting traces of his own far-distant rural roots in the wrong end of County Wicklow, My mother’s voice, I still hear clear as a bell too. Her outfit came from the West of Ireland, and considerable hardship. So, our house was an orchestra/circus of say-no-more Dublin irony with a Clare accent that ran like a bog-road, up hill and down dale, merry, musical, mischievous, and deeply consoling. And somehow – somehow - in the heel of the reel, as both might say, it worked.

b) From American TV and movies. This is reliable cause for hoots of laughter around our house. Canadian wife and Canadian kids here imagine Bonanza, Rawhide, Ironsides, The Man from UNCLE and so on, on a TV in Ireland back then as improbable, and savagely comic. Not so, I keep insisting, but argument on that score is unavailing.

A critical component of man-talk is that it needs to be, ah, studded with rhetorical questions. There also needs to be a vagueness, and a lot of incomplete items in dialogue. Men do inchoate well, much to the grim delight of the well-schooled. But I like to see the indirection, the indecision and mulling, the ‘who cares really’ of a man’s thinking on the page.

Men do quite a lot of ‘don’t know’ in their minds, and are apt (if allowed) to leave things hanging in conversations. It’s not evidence of the inarticulate and unevolved male that has given longevity to Homer Simpson and furnishes academics with theses galore, it is something else. It's the speculative side, maybe the gambler-on-reality-being-different side, the idea hunter (decidedly not gatherer), the opportunist who knows he doesn't have time to ruminate on matters, the always-on scanner of horizons for threats and benefits. It's not desk work, that seems clear enough, and it's not about listening to / reading the instructions.

So if and because I hear sentences end in ‘ … or something’ ‘… stuff like that..’ ‘.. whatever..’ ‘ .. that kind of thing..’ I want them on the page.
It is very, very easy to get this wrong, this condensation, this distillation. Readers and editors (women, I have to note) send up many flares and sighs over it. This drives my editor bonkers. She is from a different planet – women are from Venus, men are from bars remember – and has no end of compelling arguments for fixing what she sees as solecisms.

Sentences as clumsy as they are stubby bring her misgivings and the equivalent of language heartburn. Paragraphs made of one short, awkward sentence. Clear scorn for the so-called need for a verb. Sentences vacant of even a ‘complete thought’ (there are no complete thoughts, I keep suggesting). Some have a lonely, vague phrase, like a skid mark on a dark road next to a smashed guard-rail and an infinite domain of darkness below. A carelessness, a recklessness, is the likely cause of this wreck, and the jumbled prose too, no doubt.

So, there are limits to the man-talk.

Below is iteration number 3 of a passage. The main character has just been to the scene of a hit-and-run, where an acquaintance has been deliberately killed by a stolen badly in need of company after He finds himself driving aimlessly around Dublin, looking for someone from whom he can get shelter.

Excerpt from 'Haywire' (wip John Brady)

I’m two or three sets of lights gone from where Christy got run down before I have any clue about where I should be, could be, headed. All I know is that I want a soft spot to land. To be distracted, to hide – I don’t know.

It turns out I am headed for the only one who can deliver the above. But even before I text Spots, I’ve decided that it won’t be me bringing up the topic of what has happened to Christy Cullinane. Spots being Spots, he has a highly evolved approach to ‘the news,’ especially these days with way things are headed in this country. The same Spots is a specialist in tuning things out, in actual fact. I sometimes forget that the nature of his business means that instead of him keeping up with 'the news,' he’s tuned in to people and events that need to stay out of ‘the news.’

Whether or which. I’m not going to be the one to tell Spots what’s happened to Christy.

‘What’s happened to Christy.’

The words roll around in my mind like huge, lumbering bowling balls. What a cop-out, these words. Do I mean Christy being run down by a fucking maniac in a stolen van, and then run over twice, until the blood flowing from his crushed head filled a good-sized pool on the roadway around him? Is that ‘what happened to Christy?’

Be that as it may. We’ll see, I suppose. On I go, on my way to his place in Ringsend.

The drive ends up becoming is a passage through The Land of Lost Time. Still, I must have stopped at an off licence: I have tins of continental beer and a bottle of Bacardi, and Pepsis.

At any rate, texts are how Spots likes to communicate. He was quick to reply to mine, and it’s as brief as I like: OK.

I’m lucky with a parking spot.

Spots is standing by the hall door waiting, his jacket on and ready to hit the road. He has had a few scoops already, I can tell. I also know that the painkillers he takes have some effect as well.

He eyes the bag.

“A bit sudden this,” he says. There’s not much to say to this. I nod.

“And for the record, you look like shite. By the way.”

I manage to scrape up a retort about not seeing him on the cover of Vogue himself. This fails to register, however.

“You were bad enough to start with. But this, this is noticeable.”

Out of quips, I stare at the letterbox.

"You've got the heebie-jeebies, have you.”

Spots knows I’ve had to go to a shrink. I just grab the bag of drink tighter and come up with a shrug.

He's a bit wheezy walking out to his pride and joy, his Merc. He gives off some serious grunts getting in. He sits for a few moments then, rubbing the ignition key between his thumb and forefinger. The Merc has some kind of erotic value to him, I daresay. He can tell the engine revs to the nearest one hundred, I'd say.

He turns to me from the driver’s seat, studies my face like an evil surgeon.

“Are you after losing it on someone? Just so’s I know.”

I shake my head. Spots weighs me with another doubting look. This I can do without.

"Want me to drive, do you.”

He almost smiles.

"No. Fucking. Way. Pal.”

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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John Brady

John Brady is the author of the acclaimed Matt Minogue mystery novels. His first Matt Minogue mystery novel, A Stone of the Heart, won the Arthur Ellis Best First Novel Award, and his novels Unholy Ground, Kaddish In Dublin, All Souls and The Good Life have all been shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel. The sixth novel in the series, Islandbridge, was shortlisted for the Dashiell Hammett prize and his most recent, The Coast Road, was named a Globe & Mail Top 100 book for 2010.

Go to John Brady’s Author Page