Two Reviews for the Price of One

David Lewis reviews two novels by Dean Bakopoulos and Glenn Patterson

‘Don’t read contemporary fiction,’ is a maxim generally worth sticking to. So much dross, far too little time. After all, a quick sweep of local charity shops gives a basketful of classics for a pittance. Occasionally, however, I wobble. Occasionally I think to myself, what if I’m missing out? What if there is a Greene, a Chandler, an Orwell, a Tolstoy even, writing out there today? Seeking the zeitgeist, I plunge into Waterstone's and panic buy books like Please Don’t Come Back From the Moon, which, alas, immediately confirms my prejudice.

Dean Bakopoulos’ first novel reeks of the creative writing class, US style. The lengthy list of acknowledgements (can nobody just write a book these days?) seems to include half of the University of Michigan, where some of the story is set. Write what you know God dammit! Leave your imagination at the door.

Bakopoulos adheres to the other writing-class rules:
1. Employ a whimsical conceit. Fathers abandon families to live on the moon. Check.
2. Set in gritty working class neighbourhood. Maple Rock, Detroit. Check.
3. Give characters no hope lives involving alcoholism, drug taking, bar brawls, dead end jobs etc. This will give the book ‘meaning’. Check.
4. Include ‘issues’ such as the loss of manufacturing, the break up of the nuclear family. See 3. Check.
5. Do not use interesting adjectives or verbs or in any way attempt to develop your own ‘style’. This is known as ‘doing a Hemingway’. Check.
6. Use lots of clunky similes. 'Laughing like drunks do when they punch their fists through windows' all the way to a publishing deal. Check.
7. Include interminable lists of what people are wearing and eating. This is known as characterisation.

The result is a neat enough and, to be fair to Bakopoulos, readable book, which lacks any depth, wit or real insight. We follow the narrator Michael from 16 to 30, through myriad relationships, jobs and friendships, after the fathers of Maple Rock begin to disappear without warning.

'I would survive many things without him and I was capable of doing things on my own,' Michael concludes after Pa leaves for the moon. Good for you.

The intention is to show the flipside of the American Dream. Like who believes in that any more anyway? In fact, it’s the American Whine. The fathers and sons don’t get rich and famous, they don’t go to college, they don’t get the swimming pool or the talk show. Yet in Bakopoulos’ narrative, their tragedy is little more than teenage angst and laziness. The moon is too good for them.

Thankfully Glenn Patterson’s Number 5 restores my faith in contemporary fiction. This is the Belfast author’s fifth novel and the pedigree shows. Number 5 meanders over five decades, taking in the lives of five families that live in a small Belfast terrace.

The house is the main character, and we follow it through various DIY disasters and modernisations, until a glum, central heating-less three up two down has been transformed into a trendy des res, complete with glass bricks and cedar-wood decking.

Some residents find the house confining, for others it offers sanctuary. The first owners, the Falloons, move in during the godforsaken 1950s, a time of which Heaney wrote: 'If a coathanger knocked in a wardrobe / That was a great event.' The Falloon’s marriage and society in general are strait-jacketing. Fifty years later and the mores have changed – the owners of Number 5 are hard drinking, drug-taking fuck buddies. Yet both ‘couples’ seem equally lonely and trapped. The human condition hasn’t altered one bit.

Patterson highlights the fact that our homes are still where our greatest acts of intimacy take place, and, yes, where we have sex, particularly in the chilly north of Ireland.

Only long-term nosey neighbour Ivy Moore and the voyeuristic reader see the continuity between the families that move in and out of Number 5. One owner visualises a plaster discolouration from a previous generation’s leak as the outline of Greenland. He labours for the next seven years, drawing a map of the world on the wall. The map is papered over, only to be revealed by the final owners to play a part in the novel’s conclusion.

As Ivy puts it: 'When houses are as close together as ours it’s an effort a lot of the time not to look, a heartache now and then what you do, without meaning to, see.'

Patterson’s prose is beautiful, stylish and controlled. When it comes to writing from a woman’s perspective he is up there with Brian Moore, the doyen of Belfast writers. The black humour for which Belfast is infamous is never far away. He deals with big themes – social change, racism, sectarianism – with the lightest of touches. The Troubles lurk in the background, outside the terrace houses, until the violence rudely knocks on doors and can no longer be ignored.

To Patterson’s credit he consistently eschews the sensational, choosing instead to celebrate the commonplace and show that ‘ordinary’ people’s stories are just as interesting and valid as those that grab the headlines. It is this subtle truth-telling that makes Number 5 such a big-hearted and wise book.

And like all good fiction, Number 5 makes the reader consider some of life’s fundamental questions. For example, I found myself wondering, with NI house prices increasing in value by a third every year, how much had Number 5 gone up in value in the time it took me to read the book?