The Last Romantic Out of Belfast
Sam Keery's autobiographical novel delves into the constricting world of 1940s Belfast
Originally from Lisburn, author Sam Keery emigrated to Australia at the age of 21, in 1951, and working-class Protestant Joe McCabe, the central character in Keery's autobiographical novel, will eventually make the same journey.
Rather than a celebration of the 'rare old days' of working-class life in Belfast, however, The Last Romantic Out of Belfast is a story of dashed hopes in the constricted and constricting world of the 1940s.
As the real and fictional protagonists view themselves as the ‘last romantics’ in the city and long to get out, the centrality of personal impasse is evident. Joe, the intelligent and sensitive son of a Belfast shoemaker, has difficulty fitting in. He wonders what his father’s workshop looks like when it is unseen: ‘perhaps things not being looked at did not exist’.
He attends a ‘Raggedy School’, yet Joe’s parents buy his school books while others depend on tattered hand-me-downs. His mother is horrified, therefore, when he prefers the jam sandwiches of the poor children to her own.
In war time, games adapt from 19th century Zulu campaigns to re-enactments of Pearl Harbour. The Americans arrive with chewing gum, cigarettes and sex. Joe wins a scholarship to grammar school, but cannot share the aspirations of middle-class fellow pupils: surely a familiar difficulty for working-class children. Reading and writing offer sanctuary. It is a lonely existence.
Above all Joe yearns, as adolescents do, for ‘romance’. He has an intense platonic relationship with a cousin who dies of TB, then pursues another girl by sending her a synopsis of his ‘epic’ novel, a recipe for disaster, surely. But there is an unworldliness to Joe's exploits, unlike the easy and resented familiarity of his father, who attracts a variety of women.
Work brings fresh cul-de-sacs. Joe becomes bookkeeper for a jobbing builder, Mr Laffan, a fine cameo, who fiddles the books and begrudges paying his workforce while fearing their contempt. Laffan has been blackballed by the masons and contemplates being saved. After all, ‘they don’t black bean you at the gates of the Kingdom’.
Then it is off to a linen mill, still a world where the owners are called by their first names and where female spinners and weavers are as irrepressible as ever - and tease young men who don’t know how to deal with them.
Finally, in a belated moment of attempted modernisation, Joe goes to the ‘Tech’ and enters a new fraternity that crosses the religious divide, but he cannot engage with more middle-class acquaintances who go camping and youth hostelling. He admires the ease and conviviality of old working-class friends but cannot rejoin their group.
Still he writes, but to no good effect. He frequents the bookstalls in Smithfield and a line of another certainly doomed poem comes into his head: ‘Lingering by the bookstalls of Smithfield while life passed him by…’ Redemption is not to be found in his novel, but may lie in his ticket to the new world.
Adolescent angst is a universal rite of passage, and often most effectively expressed in the novel. Therefore, we are bound to ask, what is special here?
Originally published by Blackstaff Press in 1984, this new edition is published by Book Guild, who specialise in co-publishing with authors, a basis which may have enabled this new edition.
The Times Literary Supplement called The Last Romantic Out of Belfast an 'impressive first novel' upon its original publication, but there are faults with this book, which are, perhaps, especially evident all these years later.
Keery writes well, but too rarely uses the fictional form to escape the narrative straitjacket. His charting of the endless stratifications of Belfast society has a potential, which is, unfortunately, lost in the morass of psychological paralysis that afflicts his central character.