Keen to rise in the IRA ranks, Sammy and his friends pile body upon body while smoking weed, singing karaoke in the pub and commandeering a comic-book shop to cover their operations. The latter is an allegory author David Keenan returns to often in his second novel, For the Good Times, the narrative switching from Sammy’s joke-peppered Irish vernacular to surrealist visions of him and the others as superheroes battling cosmic forces. Those passages, though infrequent, feel like a flimsy cover for Keenan to revel in the book’s cartoonish violence, the causes and consequences of which go largely unexamined... As Brexit threatens stability in Northern Ireland, a novel set during The Troubles feels well timed, though this one is less a sobering reminder of Irish history than a queasily enjoyable coming-of-age yarn.
At a time when this country cannot understand its own present because it has such a selective knowledge of the past – witness the stupefaction of arguing over the Irish border, which most people in the UK, including half the government, are entirely ignorant of – Keenan crawls inside history, heading straight to the heart of darkness...This period of history is a labyrinth of denial, doublethink and ferocity. Keenan uses all this to create an extraordinary tale of bloodlust and hyper-violence, weaving in Nietzsche, comic books, Aleister Crowley, thick Paddy jokes, religiosity, brilliant slang. One minute it’s drenched in the ominous dark-red tones of a Scorsese film, and then it flips into situationist hilarity. This movement between different worlds feels vertiginous at times, but the reader is soon earthed again with the description of a beating or an Irish joke... Occult, transformative, difficult, fantastic: Keenan is smashing through so many borders in this novel. It’s beyond savage.
Keenan is stylistically unconventional, searingly modernist and able to build scenes of sustained chaos and fury at a galloping pace. It makes for lacerating reading when he does so but the overriding taste is a desire to pare down the Troubles and any surrounding religious imperative ("…this terrible need to put suffering on a pedestal, this cult of pain, is holy,") into something absurdist, ramshackle and scattergun...While it does strike notes of zinging humour and mayhem - the films of Ben Wheatley somehow spring to mind - it can occasionally be hard to find purchase in its circular motions and bloody hijinks.
Keenan writes the violence of the paramilitaries with vividness and immediacy, or, to put it another way, with no excuses. He captures a permanent brutal present, experienced sometimes orgiastically by its perpetrators... Keenan is either giving the reader a rare chance to reflect on the intoxication with violence at the heart of our culture, or providing us with a florid example of its celebration... a powerful novel, but what is uncertain is the nature of that power. The narrator’s dodge into forgetfulness at the end of the book would not convince any of the living participants of the Troubles.
Simultaneously repellent and brilliant, this second novel by the Glaswegian author of This Is Memorial Device takes us into the mind and crimes of Sammy, an IRA man in mid-1970s Belfast...but the nightmarish, culturally stunted world of the book feels totally real. This is one of the most strikingly written novels I have read for a long time, and, if you can stomach the violence, often one of the funniest.
The bad old days of 1970s Belfast are refracted through David Keenan’s wild, hallucinatory imagination in For the Good Times, a riotous, wise-cracking, gore-spattered account of the Troubles...Sammy, though, with the benefit of hindsight, gives hints of the bigger picture amid the chaos, grubby sex, intoxication and increasing paranoia, to chilling effect. And all this is interspersed by dream sequences, Paddy jokes, and the tale reconfigured as a fantasy comic book. Keenan is subtly mocking as he lets Sammy’s self-aggrandisement reveal the sordid truth of his exploits, and his breakneck storytelling leaves you utterly unsettled.
Lucidity is stretched in the novel’s most incantatory passages, where the narrator’s mental state makes events unreliable, and pushes Catholic imagery of the suffering Christ into occult territory. There is a pulsing beat to the prose, accelerating rhythms built of comic repetition, bawdy vernacular and shocking collisions. For the Good Times becomes a compassionate portrayal of men whose humanity is deformed by the Troubles; it is a dark voyage into and ultimate rejection of the idea that it is in violence that man’s true potential is revealed.
The novel has a hallucinatory quality... There are some typographical flourishes which, though clever (or even clever-clever) do not really add much to the novel. Not all female characters should be described by their cup-size... It is serious in a way in which many novels are not really serious, and yet manages a kind of manic comedy at the same time. The quality of the prose is some of the most lyrical and gruesome that I have read for a while... It is, and I mean this as a genuine compliment, ghastly.
References to crispy pancakes and Rod Stewart’s ‘Hot Legs’ notwithstanding, this fantastic, terrifying novel is phantasmagorical, high-velocity gothic. It transgresses boundaries of present and future through the seer-like character Miracle Baby, and the parameters of life and death through communication with a departed compadre. All the good stuff is there: dark forces, portents, labyrinthine passages, the recurrent idea of the double, inversions of good and evil on an epic scale.
Keenan generates an anarchic voltage from how suddenly events change direction, or get catastrophically out of hand. But as Sammy suspects infiltration and betrayal afoot, his tale – part farce, part history lesson – offers the conventional pleasures of a thriller, too, while reminding us how the rights and wrongs of any conflict are always a matter of perspective (Sammy, we come to realise, is speaking for the benefit of an unseen English interlocutor).
Yet it’s far from preachy, and with so much going on – from dream sequences to segments recasting the action as a superhero adventure – it proves alarmingly easy to forget what we’re actually reading: the unrepentant testimony of a cold-blooded killer.