Narrators are notoriously unreliable: Hart’s first-person account is noticeably erratic, while capriciousness is a hallmark of the other characters, too, with Nóra’s changeable past, Cormac’s dodgy business dealings and Dolly’s enjoyably flagrant lies. Hart’s embittered anguish is resplendent throughout; his role in one of the book’s key scenes makes for an outstanding passage of manipulation, misery and culpability. Even the kindly priest is not without his baser side when it comes to the final question of the wretched Hart’s choreographed redemption. “Was there no resting place for the old Irish in the new Ireland – a patch of land resistant to liquefaction?” Hart wonders. The Wild Laughter’s reckoning is as much concerned with these far-reaching effects of history as with the ongoing brutality of austerity.
The crisis of paternal authority and the isolation instilled by Hart’s personal loss – “Who’d tell me what I needed to hear tomorrow? Who’d keep an eye on me, or spare me a thought?” – reflect the conditions of a society hit by the credit crunch: unmoored, atomized, adrift. Hughes’s writing has an austerity that befits its subject matter. But it also has a dry, dark humour that recalls figures such as Samuel Beckett, J. M. Synge and Brian Friel – all referenced throughout the book. Not only does the author’s wit enliven this bleak narrative, it stands at its thematic centre.
From the opening pages, the narrative is appropriately fast-paced, swerving from scene to scene. Lambs are gutted, girlfriends stolen, last-supper trips are made to mobile homes. There is a maniacal quality to proceedings that makes the loss more gut-wrenching when it comes. Our sympathies lie with Hart, who becomes his beloved father’s palliative nurse without choice and without complaint: “Because Cormac had the brains and ability to make a few cute moves, when all I could do was scrub the shite off the mattress my mother couldn’t bring herself to touch.”