Respected rock journalist finds a new voice in his novel John the Revelator. Click Play Audio for a podcast with the author
Peter Murphy certainly has the look of a rock ‘n’ roller: lank shoulder-length black hair, rings adorning fingers and ears, a craggy welcoming face somewhere between Gabriel Byrne and the late heavy metal DJ Tommy Vance. And for once the old adage about appearances deceiving is apocryphal - over more than a decade Murphy has made his living, and his name, as a music scribe for, amongst others, Hot Press, Rolling Stone and Music Week.
While his journalism was winning plaudits across the globe - no less a figure than the eminent US cultural commentator Greil Marcus described his 2000 Hot Press feature ‘The Man Who Built the Old Weird America’ as ‘amazing’ – a desire to write from the imagination burned deep within the garrulous Wexford man.
‘Around 2001 this gnawing started, this hunger to write something, to write fiction,’ Murphy remarks of the first novelistic twinges. His initial effort got no further than his literary agent, but Marianne Gunn O’Connor saw enough to think the journalist might be able to cut it as a prose writer. Six years of rising at 5am to write before work later and he had a final draft of his debut novel, John the Revelator.
Critically lauded since its release earlier this year, J the R is that rare beast - an unsentimental coming of age tale. Set in the fictional Irish town of Kilcody the novel follows the angst-ridden journey of an introverted adolescent, John Devine, into manhood, via his idiosyncratic chain-smoking single mother, Lily, and a charismatic new arrival, Jamey Corboy.
Sitting in his hotel room in the centre of Belfast’s arty Cathedral Quarter a few hours before his reading at the first Belfast Book festival, Murphy appears both relaxed and chatty. In fashionable long coat and brogues he may still have the cut of a music journalist but his novelist persona was at pains to resist the temptation to seek to write about the day job.
‘I didn’t want to write some attempt at a hip, crackling, up-to-date autobiography of a journalist involved in international espionage. I was much more interested in creating a bit of another world,’ he remarks.
Murphy initially envisaged a totally song-free other world but try as he might, ‘I couldn’t keep the music out’. Sure enough music resonates throughout the book - its title is taken from a gospel tune, most memorably sung by Blind Willie Johnson; Mercury Rev, Sonic Youth and the Meat Puppets rank among the novel’s inspirations; and a sequence on the end of the world was written after OD’ing on Canadian noiseniks Godspeed You! Black Emperor.
The years as a journalist provided more than just inspiration – its unglamourous education in the discipline of writing stood him in good stead for the endless pre-dawn risings. His advice to would-be novelists is disarmingly simple - ‘go to bed knowing what you’re going to do next morning’.
On the subject of contemporary literature Murphy bears the hallmarks of an autodidact. He speaks lucidly and excitedly about the merits of writers as diverse as Raymond Carver and Flannery O’Connor, Paul Auster and Bret Easton Ellis, though his preference for gritty, vernacular prose - what Alan Warner calls ‘the thugs’ – is clear.
In both form and language, John the Revelator bears the hallmarks of classic 90s’ novelists like James Kelman, Irvine Welsh and - most closely – Patrick McCabe, whose The Butcher Boy Murphy’s novel has, almost inevitably, been compared to.
Murphy’s talents as an author are obvious, but why a successful journalist in his 30s with several young children, should voluntarily put himself through the ‘sweat and tears’ of writing a full-length novel is less evident.
‘I always wrote stories. I wrote yarns when I was in school and tried to write stories throughout my 20s – though I didn’t quite have the discipline then.’
The urge to start writing ‘seriously’ only came to Murphy in his 30s – not long after the death of his father in 2000. ‘Apparently it’s quite common, a parent dies or a person experiences some other bereavement or you’ve just reached the age of 33. If you come to writing in your 30s there generally seems to be a pattern of some sort of event that triggers it. In retrospect that was probably it for me,’ he remarks candidly.
The novel itself is not strictly autobiographical but Murphy concedes the debt it owes his own youth – ‘There are an awful lot experiences and characters that were around me growing up that influenced it.’
Elements of his teenage school friends are most evident in Jamey, introduced in the book as ‘a blow-in from Ballo town’. It is this precocious adolescent – early on we meet him reading Rimbaud in Africa – who leads the 15 year-old John on a chaotic journey into the seamier side of Kilcody life.
‘Jamey is one of those characters you met at that age. They have cooler records, cooler books, whatever, and they just sort of peel your brain apart,’ Murphy comments.
In the domineering Lily - in many ways the central character of the book - the author sees traces of both his parents. ‘A woman came up to me at the launch last week and said ‘she looks like your mother but talks like your father’,’ Murphy says smiling.
The entire novel is set within a two-mile radius of Kilcody, a thinly veiled portrayal of his home town of Enniscorthy. Laying bare the less savoury side of life in small town Ireland can be a risky business but, to Murphy’s visible relief, the book has received a great reception in the south-east.
‘You would imagine people would get bristly or defensive if you’re at all critical of the place that they grew up in, but nobody knows better the up and downsides of a place than those who live in it, and they are absolutely unsentimental about it.
‘The book was written with love and affection for the character of the people and their peculiar self-sufficency and not giving a damn about what’s going on in the outside world while being very sophisticated people. It’s no exaggeration to say you could run into old gezzers sitting at the bar quoting Homer – there is nothing at all backward about a place like that.’
Homer might be popular in Enniscorthy’s public bars, but when it came to writing John the Revelator Murphy found inspiration in more familiar fables - ‘I gravitated towards a lot of the insane, bizarre, exaggerated myths of our own culture. It’s much closer to graphic novels or cinema than a lot of so-called high literary fiction of today and I love that about them.’
The instructive role of myths in Irish culture and society is a key theme in the book: at one stage Lily tells John the allegorical tale of Fionn Mac Cumhaill fleeing Ulster with his mother on his shoulders. Tellingly Fionn ran so fast that by the time the warrior reached Lough Derg all that remained were the poor woman’s legs, which he threw to the ground, to be found by the Fianna, infested with worms.
Like all good myths, Murphy’s debut novel has a moral for us all: ‘It is saying ‘yes the worst will happen but you must survive it, and you will survive it’.’ Now who said rockers never said anything worth listening to?