David Keenan’s 2017 debut novel was feverishly well received. Now the hallucinatory follow-up, set in Belfast during the Troubles, is being tipped for a big screen adaptation. Interview by Malcolm Jack
The savage nadir of the Troubles in Belfast is not a world into which a writer enters lightly, especially not one on a mission to kaleidoscopically bend reality with magical realism, science-fiction and comic book fantasy. But that’s what David Keenan does with his immersive second novel For The Good Times. So which is he – brave or foolhardy? “I’m a little of both,” he responds with a laugh.
“This is not a book specifically about the IRA and the Troubles,” he cautions. “In a way that’s the backdrop. One of the big things I wanted to talk about is masculinity and violence, and how these cycles are perpetuated through fathers and sons. As I say in the book: in Ireland history is not written, it’s remembered, and this is a cycle that’s very hard to break.”
In the mainly Catholic Ardoyne area of North Belfast in the 1970s, hard-drinking, sharp-suited, happy-go-lucky psychopath Tommy and his gang of similarly untethered friends skirt the lines between ruthless Republican terrorism and freelance criminality, beating, murdering and bombing their way around Northern Ireland and beyond in pursuit of some intangible glory and absolution that seems to be as much personal as it is political. It’s a frenzy of Scorsesean gore, paranoia and debasement with a surrealist edge that has caused a friend of Keenan’s to aptly liken the book to “Mean Streets meets Philip K Dick’s A Scanner Darkly”. In practically every crackling line of tough, trippy and guiltily laugh-out-loud funny prose – a writing style inspired by his Ardoyne-born father and family and what Keenan calls the “performative” raconteuring of the Irish that has captivated him since childhood – it proves why the Airdrie-raised and now Glasgow-based author is one of the most hotly-tipped Scottish writers of the moment.
Such recognition hasn’t arrived quickly, nor without some shall-we-say unconventional conditioning to the almost self-sacrificial travails of being a novelist. In his mid-30s, after years “in the trenches of music journalism,” as he puts it – writing for esoteric titles such as The Wire and penning a book called England’s Hidden Reverse about obscure underground bands Coil, Current 93 and Nurse With Wound – upon laboriously completing his first novel Keenan immediately destroyed the manuscript. “I spent a year writing the world’s most s**t novel,” he says, “and then I smashed my laptop to bits with a hammer, to ritualise it. To make sure I didn’t try to claim it again. To prove to myself, ‘OK, maybe I have got what it takes to become a real writer’. And I immediately started another book.”
Ten years and several more books later – not a word of them published to that point – and following a speculative pitch to an agent via Twitter, Keenan was offered a deal by Faber & Faber for what would become his debut novel, 2017’s This Is Memorial Device. It’s an explosive, hallucinatory portrait of a fictional post-punk band in Eighties Airdrie, a book so feverishly well received it is currently in production as a TV series. Such is the anticipation surrounding the follow-up that even prior to its publication there are already discussions under way about adapting For The Good Times for the big screen, and little wonder considering its aforementioned grittily filmic quality. “I never write with anything in mind except the demands of the book,” says Keenan. “But after I read the things I wrote, it’s very visual. It does have a sort of cinematic, wide-screen appeal to it.”
This Is Memorial Device and For The Good Times may be set only a decade and a few hundred miles apart, but the subject matter could scarcely be more different. Yet Keenan insists that the two stories have more in common than might first meet the eye.
“I always felt that they were both ages where it seemed like reality itself was up for grabs a little bit,” he says. “Different rules applied during the Troubles when I visited Belfast, just as Airdrie was an otherwise shitty, dismal town transformed temporarily by post-punk.”
For The Good Times isn’t a book about music in the same way that This Is Memorial Device is, yet it does have one key musical thread running throughout insofar as Tommy and his friends hold up clean-living Italian-American crooner Perry Como – after one of whose songs the book is titled – as a curious paragon of virtue in spite of their own self-evident moral bankruptcy. It’s a clever mechanism allowing Keenan to explore the strange dichotomy between what they aspire to as people and the reality of what they are. In a world devoid of positive male role models – as we gradually learn, Tommy’s memories of his father are soaked in sadness, threat and blood – hero-worshipping a vague idea of a distant, outwardly upstanding male celebrity starts to make grim sense.
A big Como fan himself, Keenan’s father left Belfast in the 1960s just before the Troubles started to enter their true depths, and began a new life in Scotland. He was illiterate, and yet would prove a significant influence and inspiration for his son’s burgeoning literary career.
“All through my life even though my dad couldn’t read or write,” says Keenan, “he always encouraged me to read. He would always say, ‘It’s really important to read, reading can change your life’. And I would think, ‘How the f*** does he know? I think if he actually read a book he’d be disappointed.’
“So I made a vow early on that I would write the kind of books that illiterate people imagine how books can be. I want them to live up to that idea, in terms of the language, the energy, the drama. Not particularly social realist, but magical. I want things to happen that defy the laws of physics and nature. I want to re-write the world.”
For the Good Times, by David Keenan is published by Faber & Faber on 10 January