Robert McLiam Wilson's Ripley Bogle

"These victorious figures of bravado ossified young"

– Robert Lowell, 'Waking in the Blue'

We are all voyeurs of despair. Deep inside every one of this there is an entirely unhealthy fascination with the bottom of the barrel, the underside of the boat. We have all imagined what it would be like to hit bottom, to really let go. And because few, if any, of us care to conduct this experiment on ourselves, we have come to romanticise the figure of the tramp, of the man who has lost it all, of the person driven by his own demons to the extremes of despair and indigence. We are fascinated by accounts of such people – the teenage girl who tries repeatedly to take her own life, the young man who loses everything he has to drink and jealousy, the promising young writer who spends an entire weekend in a desperate, crawling quest for alcohol. There is a frisson we get from these characters because they are like us, but also inalienably other. Because we recognise in them our own impulses, our own thoughts, but their ruined lives bear no resemblance to our safe, pampered existence. Because they are both just across the street and a whole lifetime away.

Add to this idea a generous sprinkling of wit, some sparkling prose, a meaty portion of the old ultraviolence and the ne'er do well flair of old Ireland, and you have Ripley Bogle [1]. Bogle is your regular young Irish snot – born in one of the seedier parts of Belfast to even seedier parents, and growing up in the rough, unwashed but time-honoured tradition of poor Irish boys. Except that young Ripley, in secret and fantastical defiance of the laws of both nature and nurture, turns out to be an inspired auto-didact, a roaring genius, no less, who devours books out of the public library and then, afraid of being seen to be literate, buries them in his neighbour's garden. The result is a character who has the attitude of a street-fighting roughneck, the emotional outlook of a hormonal teenager and the vocabulary of an Oxford don. Delightful.

All this is flashback though. When we first meet up with Ripley, he is in London, living the far from idyllic life of the homeless vagrant – sleeping on the streets and going for days without food. In fact, the whole of the novel consists (in what is doubtless a sly, elbow-in-the-ribs dig at Joyce's Ulysses) of Ripley's peregrinations around London, as he both describes his current lifestyle as well as lays out for you (for what tramp could ever resist his own hard luck tale) the story of his life.

These are not particularly cheerful waters to be treading in. Ripley's life, both present and past, is fraught with violence. People get shot, blown up or beaten to a pulp every twenty pages or so, and broken ribs and dislocated shoulders are considered the stuff of social pleasantry. Ripley is also unabashedly generous when it comes to sharing details of the various ailments that his battered and impoverished flesh has become heir to. There is a long meditation on cancer, another on the mani-faceted delights of starvation – several grotty descriptions of incidents involving vomit, mucus and sundry other bodily fluids are included. Wilson pulls no punches here (neither do any of his characters, it would seem) so that if you're looking for that authentic gritty, scum-under-stone flavour, you're in the right place.

Miraculously enough, none of this is actually depressing. The reason is that all of Ripley's (many) trials and tribulations are laid out for us in a half sardonic, half lyrical tone. The prose is the real reason you want to be reading this book – it sings, it lilts, it has all the rhythm and charisma of an Irish jig. An extract, chosen at random: 

"In my boyhood, the sky was bright and clear, spilling its jewelled smiles into my widening windows. Mad September wasps fought lunatic dogfights in my days and suffered frenzied deaths at my experimental hand. The harboured dust of gravelled paths sprinkled my classroom steps. The Sacred Heart Primary School for Catholic Boys – woodbrown and sunpale. Old blackboards, chalked and musty. The venerable breadth of childhood. The tributes of many wandering boyhoods that had been tricked out in this place. What gusty scenarios I played out there! Lulled by the delicious boredom of school. Mind tickled by the once worldly figures of antiquity and legend (I had a youthful crush on Demosthenes for some obscure reason).

The sum of boyhood is always elegaic and patchy. Half-held traces of cloudless aspiration. Quick pictures. Same for me. Dusty days in granite playgrounds when I tried to understand the passing of time but gave myself a headache, so big and strange it seemed. Playing football after school while light grew dim and cast dramatic shadows on those walls. Gritbound lanes, where I waited for my life to form; events to come from eventful haz of childhood wonder and confusion. Boy oh boy the endless possibilities and comeliness of inexperience. Epiphanies galore!"

And on and on and on – Wilson can keep this kind of breathless, visionary, mock-heroic prose going for page upon page. There's a sense of verve in his writing, a sense of heightened, over the top hilarity. And the fact that he throws in the odd comic turn from time to time helps – there's a laugh-out-loud meeting with M/s. Dickens and Orwell (with both of them reciting each other's lines) and a rollicking pub scene that takes the mickey out of Joyce (and Hamlet) and is pure pleasure from start to finish.

What makes all this work, of course, is that in the midst of all this merry farce there's a deeply authentic ring to what Bogle is saying. Oh, I don't just mean the constant undercurrent of violence and destitution. I mean that every now and then, when you manage to stop guffawing long enough, there's a clever, almost Salinger like ring of truth to Bogle's musings. Take this example:

"the one thing that really fucks me up is decency. That deliberate calm, that fucking equanimity. Pit me against a truly decent man, a short-arsed tubby middle-aged mediocrity with an overdraft and scraggy teen-aged daughters and I'm useless. I'm massacred by all that mild wisdom, that relentless charity and experience. The consideration, the tact, the placid acceptance. Christ above, the sheer unnecessary goodness of these people makes me sick! I get all humble and I stammer…me for chrissakes! Gorgeous, gregarious, grabber me! When I was younger I used to beat the crap out of them, shag their wives and piss on their toupees – all that kind of thing. But it never really made any difference. I still had the feeling they were winning whatever prize our contest held. I couldn't take it….

…The thing about the old is that they're old. They are pompous, intolerant and cantankerous. They have no spontaineity and no vigour. They are terribly sentimental about being old.

The thing about the young is that we are young. We are obstinate, vain and insolent. We have no wisdom and no judgement. We are terribly sentimental about being young."

Unfortunately, this sort of frenzied lucidity doesn't make it all the way through. In fact, that pub scene I mentioned is pretty much the last of it. From that point on, the novel slowly gives way to the gravity of its narrator's wretchedness, like a boat settling slowly into a bog. The prose shifts to a minor key, Bogle's musings turn maudlin. Before you know it, the book has gone all soggy on you, and frankly, Wilson doesn't have the talent to keep that going. Mercifully, he seems to recognise that himself, so that he beats a hasty path to the book's conclusion, letting all of Bogle's deepest darkest secrets come tumbling out all in a heap in the last three dozen pages (I'm not going to tell you what said secrets are, obviously, but it turns out they're exactly what you'd thought all along they were going to be – Bogle may think he's a master of deceit, but actually he's pretty transparent to everyone but himself).

Don't get me wrong – it's not that the last 50 pages or so of this book are badly written or painful or anything – they're just a little dull, and that, given the rest of the book is crime enough. 

Bottomline: Ripley Bogle is an excruciatingly funny (in every sense of that adjective), headlong rush of a read, whose crisp, enchanting prose will delight and dazzle you. Reading this book is like getting very, very high on fine, smooth Irish whisky. Just make sure you watch out for the hangover afterwards. 

[1] For my introduction to which, I'm entirely indebted to Aishwarya.