I had the privilege to be at the launch of Diarmuid O’Chongaile’s first novel, Being Alexander. While I was waiting for the festivities to begin, standing in the Gutter Bookshop, I flicked through a few pages. The power of Diarmuid’s voice reached out to me immediately. It is a voice that rings strongly and consistently through the novel and is a major achievement for a first time writer. It puts me very much in mind of some of the great contemporary American authors like Joseph Heller and John Irving. The story that he tells is less of a journey and more of a sight seeing expedition. He stops and marvels at each little thing, filling in a bit of back story on each character, philosophising on each trivial event while all but ignoring the major plot turns, remembering fondly a childhood lost but grown sacred with memory.
There is a scene where Alexander has acquired a top of the range BMW; he climbs in, astonished by the quality of everything about the car. He goes to drive off, is politely informed by the satnav that he is going the wrong way and, still recovering from a very heavy night’s drinking, he vomits down the beautiful dashboard. I thought this was a metaphor for Alexander as a whole. Privileged, well educated, with a girlfriend and family who care deeply about him, Alexander pretty much vomits on everything that could bring salvation to his life. He turns constantly away from anything good and seeks out whatever is destructive, soulless and empty.
He is not, though, a pitiful or malicious character, he is simply cast adrift in a vacuum lacking spirituality or values, itself a metaphor for the worst days of the Celtic Tiger corruption in which he is immersed. He watches himself as if from afar, as the reader does also, curious to see what he will do next, what depravity he will choose to sink to. Despite his deep failings, Alexander is a charming host for this sight seeing tour. His looping deviations constantly entertain and amuse, and, as you drop your head in your hands thinking ‘what the hell is he at now’, you are already forgiving him and vainly hoping that he will find some direction and some happiness.
It’s a first novel, it certainly won’t be Diarmuid’s last given the fantastic prose and that voice.