Lockdown Bookclub – The Good Son
There aren’t many sassy, sexually-ambiguous, ten year-old, Irish first-person narrators in fiction. So thank heavens for Mickey Donnelly. From the moment we first meet him, we know that Mickey is a mammy’s boy. But there’s more to it than that. To his older brother Paddy, he’s a “wee gay boy” and “a fucking weirdo”. To the kids who play on the mean streets where he lives, he’s a “fruity boy” who acts “like a girl”. The other boys bully him. The girls tease him. Even Mickey’s Aunt Kathleen worries about the way he behaves. “Do you think he’s...” she asks, before Mickey’s mother cuts her off. Not even a doting mammy wants to consider the possibility of her wee boy being one of those!
The events described in Paul McVeigh’s debut novel take place over the course of the summer holidays, as Mickey waits to hear which grammar school he’ll attend – the posh St Malachy’s or the less desirable St Gabriel’s. But this is Belfast in the 1980s, at the height of the Troubles. Lives are hemmed in by sectarian violence. British soldiers raid people’s homes and are targeted by men in balaclavas. Warning signs remind us that careless talk costs lives. Mickey thinks his father may be in the IRA. He turns to his priest for guidance. Mickey knows he’s different. He knows that most boys his age don’t spend so much time playing with their kid sister. He knows the other children hate him. “It’s OK to be different,” his priest assures him. “It gets easier as you get older.”
Mickey can’t wait to be older. He dreams of moving to America, and taking his mammy and kid sister Wee Maggie with him. He dreams of stardom, and performing before an adoring audience that includes Bette Davis, Judy Garland and Sue Ellen and Pamela Ewing from ‘Dallas’.
Of course not every mummy’s boy with a love of amateur dramatics and a passion for camp female icons grows up to be gay. But a great many do. And for those of us who survived a childhood similar to the one described in these pages, part of Mickey’s charm is that we feel as if we already know him. He speaks for the odd boy out in all of us. So when Mickey tells us that his favourite character in ‘Grease’ is Rizzo, and that he cried when she sang ‘There Are Worse Things I Could Do’ (“than go with a boy or two”) we smile knowingly – because who among us didn’t prefer bad girl Stockard Channing to squeaky clean Olivia Newton-John?
When Mickey imagines himself walking like John Travolta in ‘Saturday Night Fever’, we know how it feels to be in his shoes. And when he raves about ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and sings ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ – well, let’s just say he’s not the first friend of Dorothy to dream of a life less ordinary.
And for all Mickey’s denials that he might be gay, his physical responses give him away. He struggles to produce an erection for a girl and is instantly aroused at the sight of a visiting Frenchman’s hairy legs. He may not be ready to admit it to himself, but it would appear that Mickey Donnelly is all the things people say he is – and more besides.
What makes him such a distinctive character is that his personal struggle is set against an armed struggle the likes of which few of us experience firsthand. He’s not just a troubled child but a child growing up during the Troubles. This is a world where male role models come in very few varieties and often carry guns. It’s a tough environment for any young boy, least of all one targeted by homophobic bullies.
But Mickey is nothing if not resourceful. It was Yeats who characterized the Irish as having “an abiding sense of tragedy” which sustains them through “temporary periods of joy”. For our young protagonist, the opposite is true. Mickey never succumbs to self pity – and when tragedy strikes, he bears it as bravely as any soldier might, sustained by his dreams of a better life. For him, dreams aren’t mere escapism. He’s determined to make them come true. And such is his self belief that we’re left thinking he’ll probably succeed.
What emerges from this novel isn’t just a portrait of the outsider as a young Irishman. It’s also a testament to the strength of character required by gay children simply to survive. Mickey may be effeminate but he’s certainly not weak. He’s kind, loving and sometimes an eejit. He’s also cunning and far more courageous than any ten year old boy should need to be. He might not have his “man’s voice” yet, but he’s the only one man enough to take care of his mother.
One day Mickey Donnelly will probably attend a Gay Pride march. But for now he’s making the best of a bad situation and putting his father and older brother to shame. And in doing so, he proves himself to be not just a good son but a true hero. Not bad for a wee girly boy.
The Good Son was the winner of The Polari First Book Prize 2016
A version of this review originally appeared in The Irish Times