Michael Nolan's novella in and about modern Belfast is satisfyingly ambiguous and hints at greater things
In January 2014, Salt Publishing, a small English house that already had a reputation for its poetry list, invited submissions, via social media, for a new digital imprint entitled 'Modern Dreams’.
They wanted stories that reflected the lives of young people in the British Isles aged 18 – 24; stories of hard urban issues about people we might not like very much but about whom we would come to care. Michael Nolan’s novella, The Blame, had all that they were looking for.
The book is set in contemporary Belfast and tells the story of Donal, a young man from Twinbrook, who wakes into the awful aftermath of a bender in which one of his friends has died and others have been hospitalised because of the 'Green Rolex' tablets he gave out at a party. Donal himself is the only one not made ill by the drugs.
The story follows the outworkings of the tragedy of the boy Pearce’s death, complicated by the fact that Pearce’s uncle is Fra McCusker, an old Provo and a dissident – a hard man out of the league of Donal’s brother, Malachi, a hard man himself who has, in the past, usually sorted things out for his brother.
The story is told from Donal’s viewpoint but in a third person voice that preserves the grammar and language of Belfast while also managing to be elegant and reflective in its descriptions: ‘Darkness spread like an ink stain in the sky. The town quietened. That lapse between the end of day and beginning of night, when retailers close and cars wait, anticipating. There’s a vacancy about the streets, similar to the early hours of the morning he likes.’
It is something of a cliché now to say that a place becomes a character in a work of fiction, but the cliché is true here – The Blame is full of Belfast: the Writer’s Square where Donal lives, Rise, the ball sculpture on the Broadway Roundabout, the National Bar.
Ian Sampson, one of Nolan’s mentors when he attended the Creative Writing Masters in Queen's University, says that if anyone wants to know what Belfast is like now then they should read this book.
The sense of location, coupled with the use of events that were current at the time of the novella’s writing – drug deaths like the one central to the story and the Christmas bomb in Exchequer Place – suggest the possibilities for immediacy in digital publishing, which can commission a work in January and make it available by June of the same year.
The context gives the piece a sharpness and currency that the publishers obviously hoped for: ‘They drove along Grosvenor Road to the Fitzwilliam Hotel, took a left past the Twin Spires and onto College Square East… The City Hall was lit up like an advertisement, the Christmas tree swaying in the breeze. Two lads wearing Santa hats pissed on the bank machine outside Burger King.'
The gift of the writing here is in the complexity of characters, the novella’s concentration of story, the very natural structure in which, in the present, we slowly learn the back story of what has taken us here, and an ending that avoids its most obvious route and is genuinely surprising,
Donal may live a chaotic life but it is his life and it is a life he owns, when he owns almost nothing else. He rejects the shining consumerist vision of Belfast – the shops filled with people buying things they don’t need and that have no spiritual value – for one that he sees as more authentic. The pub he loves is Kelly’s Cellars – ‘a real bar’, he says, rather than a manufactured one.
Donal is kind, he tries to give a waitress change, he feels empathy with the homeless drunks outside in Writer’s Square – 'More of a danger to themselves than anyone else’. The novella’s taking place in the city at Christmas time brings Holden Caulfield to mind: Donal’s seeking comfort in a neighbour’s bed even though she won’t ‘ride him’ but both ‘clinging to each other as a raft lost at sea' recalls Holden’s loneliness and sense of dissolution.
But this is Belfast rather than Manhattan and the only thing that this Belfast Catcher can look forward to is exile, firstly in Omeath and then farther away because of the revenge he knows Pearce’s uncle will exact in the crude form of Republican social justice – an almost Biblical casting out of the defiled or sinful.
I like how little is explained in the book. We don’t know what has led to Donal’s lostness – there is no father, there is a reference to the losses his mother has suffered and some suggestion of illness on her part. There is another brother who has escaped via college and the suggestion that he might be gay, but we never really know.
The Blame is a brilliant and original debut. I did come to care about Donal and it had me laughing at things I felt I shouldn’t really be laughing at. Nolan was only 23 when he wrote this novella, which suggests a very bright future for this emerging Northern Irish author.
The Blame is available to download from Salt Publishing now.