“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.
Thursday, February 25, 2016
Review: GULL by Glenn Patterson
This brief, pithy chapter introduces the main characters and themes of Gull. The absent, charismatic but ultimately undependable DeLorean, whose dream of creating an affordable, ‘ethical’ sports car resulted the stainless-steel, iconic gull-winged DMC-12; Randall, the faithful servant who was never fully convinced by DeLorean, but who remained dazzled by his promise of better times to the very end; and Liz, the working-class Belfast woman who sacrificed her personal life on the altar of DeLorean’s delusions.
John DeLorean is the marquee name here, of course, although we are never privy to his thoughts throughout Gull. The story is told for the most part from Randall’s perspective, who is a cub reporter when he first meets DeLorean in 1972, covering the launch of the ’73 Chevrolet Vega, the latest addition to John DeLorean’s glittering CV. DeLorean had long established himself as a star of the American motor manufacturing business, and particularly with the behemoth General Motors; when Randall queried DeLorean’s claims on behalf of the new Chevy Vega, earning himself a rebuke (and a demotion) from his newspaper colleagues, he earns DeLorean’s respect. A few years later, when Randall is working on the real estate beat for his newspaper, he gets a call from DeLorean, who wants Randall to head up the logistics division of his new company: the DeLorean Motor Company (DMC).
It’s a plum job, but Randall earns his money the hard way. Initially, the plan is to establish the DMC manufacturing plant in Puerto Rico; at the very last minute, however, while Randall is in a meeting with the Governor of Puerto Rico waiting to sign the contracts, DeLorean rings Randall from Belfast to tell him that the plant will be in Ireland.
By now the tone has been set: DeLorean is a magnetic, successful visionary and businessman, but one given to mercurial changes of mind and mood, and a man whose associates aren’t always entirely savoury. Randall, however, is a believer in DeLorean’s vision; over the coming years, he will repeatedly ignore DeLorean’s failings in order to focus on the big picture. Patterson intends Randall as an Everyman standing in for the public at large, wanting to be convinced that DeLorean has all the answers and mesmerised by his charisma. “DeLorean stepped up to the microphone,” he tells us of one speech, “to the right of the grandstand, as though – Randall had observed it before – he moved through a different medium, or was being shot on a different speed, to everyone around him. […] And as for his jaw, it was his conductor’s baton, his wand, wherever it pointed there was a reaction, a jumping to attention, a rush of colour to the cheeks, an instant abashed smile.”
The DeLorean portrayed here is a fascinating Pied Piper, but it’s not just the likes of Randall and Liz that he charms. DeLorean arrived in Belfast telling the Labour-led British government that his manufacturing plant wouldn’t simply create jobs in an economically devastated Northern Ireland, it would also save lives. And it’s the impact of the new factory on Belfast that interests Patterson even more than the protean figure of John DeLorean, and particularly his impact on the hopes and aspirations of a generation beaten down by the Troubles. Liz, who applies for a job at the DeLorean factory against the express wishes of her husband, is a woman who has little reason for optimism. “She had long ago given up on politicians in this part of the world – take your pick from old men, angry men, or angry old men – and the ones from across the water always seemed, and not just by virtue of the water, remote.”
That might sound like a depressingly familiar scenario, but it’s a tribute to Glenn Patterson’s gift for storytelling that even though we’re familiar with much of the broad historical details of DeLorean’s rise and fall, Gull quickly becomes a compelling tale of hubris, a kind of Troubles-set version of the myth of Daedalus and Icarus. Patterson exquisitely evokes both the bleakness and the black humour of Belfast during the worst of the Troubles (“Welcome to Belfast, East Berlin without the laughs.”), but also, as has been the case in his most recent works, the novel The Rest Just Follows (2015) and the screenplay for the movie Good Vibrations (2013), Patterson digs beneath the banner headlines to explore the extent to which Catholic and Protestant communities were capable of bonding together for their common good when opportunities arose.
Here the working-class people of Belfast have been abandoned by politicians of all hues, left to sink or swim (sink, mostly) into the mire of a war-torn province. IRA prisoners in the H-Block are already engaged in the ‘dirty protest’ as DeLorean breaks ground on his new factory; the hunger strikes will begin shortly after the DMC-12 goes into production. It’s against a background of nihilistic despair that Liz and her co-workers allow themselves to hope that DeLorean is genuine and true, even as the reader, courtesy of the snippets of information Randall manages to glean from his boss, begins to realise that DeLorean might well be the charlatan and fraudster Liz fears him to be.
Ultimately, the narrative tension that sustains the story is bound up in its title. It refers, of course, to the classic ‘gull-winged’ shape of the DMC-12 when its doors were open, an iconic design which entered Hollywood lore when it featured in 1985’s Back to the Future (too late, alas, for the world-wide promotion to do DeLorean and his thousands of employees any good). A ‘gull’, however, also describes a person who is easy to fool or persuade. And it is perhaps too easy, Gull appears to be saying, to retrospectively pass judgement on John DeLorean for being a conman on a grand scale, and for the people of Belfast for being gullible enough to swallow his spiel. The novel suggests that the truth of the time and place was that Belfast needed John DeLorean, faults and all, just as badly as John DeLorean needed Belfast, warts and all.
Glenn Patterson has spent much of his career writing about his native city, but Gull is much more than a story about a failed sports car; at its heart it argues for a bittersweet triumph of ravenous hope over grim truth and crushing reality. In that sense, and despite its historical and ostensibly parochial setting, Glenn Patterson has written his most universal story to date. ~ Declan Burke
This review was first published in the Irish Examiner.