Fear and Loathing in Dublin
Joanne Savage reviews Aodhan Madden's story of sex, drink and journalism in 1970s' Dublin
Nobody could beat the furious perfection of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas for a ride through the whiskey-sodden psyche of an unhinged pressman.
Hunter S. Thompson created the archetype of the strung-out, stressed-out, borderline insane hack juggling equal quantities of paranoia and liquor. The genre belongs to the good doctor of gonzo.
Fear and Loathing in Dublin can’t stand up to the promise of Thompsonesque derangement suggested by the title. It conjures expectations of a savage journey to the heart of seedy Ireland: a shebeen-loving scribbler trailing a canister of ether to a Riverdance convention, hallucinating leprechauns with crack pipes and shillelaghs at every turn. You expect orgies of drug-addled delusion, nude Irish dancing on Grafton Street, sub-plots about proposed moon-landings with Bono, violent clashes with the Gardai, fiddlers swilling poteen.
But no. The great expectations of the title fell flat.
This was a great shame because Aodhan Madden has a worthy and touching story to tell. This is a memoir about the ‘fear and loathing’ Catholic Ireland has for the love that cannot speak its name. It is also an examination of one man’s battle with the demon drink, set on that difficult fault-line between madness and reason.
It is elegantly written, crisp, seamless and spare. What it lacks is the ruthless self-exposure of a truly juicy memoir; the author just can’t shake off the Catholic restraint.
Still, Madden’s biography is compelling. An increasingly alcoholic reporter at the Irish Press in the 1970s, his Catholic upbringing leaves him in traumatised denial over his homosexuality. Feverish paranoia - the inevitable corollary of sexual repression - eventually peaks until everyone, but everyone, is whispering about his closet case.
Madden slides into a cycle of drink, drink and more drink, which only exacerbates his paranoid delusions. Incipient psychosis and suicidal behaviour mean he is soon living in a mental institution among fellow outsiders and dysfunctional lost souls. Here he meets a calm and collected murderer, a bitchy gay couple fond of rouge and vodka, and a formidable shrink ready to bully his patients into sanity.
Madden’s fight for sobriety and psychological equilibrium is relayed without self-pity or mawkishness and his penchant for ruthless critique of the Dublin media frequently hits the right note.
'Heroic feats of journalism were accomplished by stubbled, half-drunk heroes armed with leaky biros'. It’s not quite gonzo, but there is talk of vomiting over actresses, making passes at policemen and urinating over politicians at expensive press junkets.
'Reporters raised their voices and rushed about…colleagues sharpened their pencils…dunked tea bags into mugs of boiling water and casually sieved morsels of news from an ever-flowing tide of human detritus.' The realities of newsgathering on a national paper are necessarily more humdrum, just as the hard facts of alcoholism are more about shame and sweaty anxiety than triumphal escapades worthy of legend.
As a record of the intransigent prejudice towards the gay community which prevailed in the Dublin of the 70s and 80s, this memoir gives voice to the concerns of a long-suffering minority. Today we have Gay Pride and a more liberal Ireland, but coming out of the closet remains a difficult transition and a distinctly marginal theme in Irish and Northern Irish literature.
Aodhan Madden’s difficult odyssey is a testament to the devastating effects of a conservative and repressive culture. Just don’t expect a rollicking ride to rival Raoul Duke.