Book Review: The Glorious Heresies

My copy of the book.

I felt like a proper eejit (idiot) reading Lisa McInerney’s 2016 debut novel, The Glorious Heresies, which I suppose is blasphemous to my ancestors somewhere down the line who gave me this red hair, but also in line with the spirit of the book. In other words, if I ever go to Cork, the second largest city in Ireland, where the characters in the book are based, I’m going to need a slang book to help me translate. Or I could get my gat (drink) on and try to blend in. Seriously, though, I enjoyed the feck (you don’t need my help on that one) out of this book, and familiarizing myself with Cork slang.

Interestingly, coming off the heels of reading Harlan Coben’s book, Caught, where I criticized the dialogue, McInerney’s book is some of the best dialogue (and writing overall) I can recall reading in a fiction book since, well, another Irish author, Tana French (she’s American-Irish, but close enough). The dialogue crackles with electricity, sensuality, dark humor, authenticity, and barbs that give weight to the characters better than most authors do with dialogue and/or description sequences. I could listen to Ryan (a 15-year-old drug dealer), Georgie (a sex worker-turned Christian cultist-turned sex worker), Maureen (mother of the top gangster in the city, Jimmy Phelan), and others talk all day long in this book, even if I have to stop to look things up.

While we’re at it, I did take note of some of the slang and/or different spellings. This is not an exhaustive list:

  • Punter = paying customer (for sex).
  • Ould = old.
  • Gatting = getting drunk.
  • Naggin = 200 ml bottle of spirits.
  • Wan = woman, or girl.
  • Noodeenaw = an annoying person.
  • Gaff = house.
  • Craic = fun (weren’t we having the craic?).

The characters also use “like” at the end of a sentence a lot, and “boy,” even when it’s not a boy being referenced. And I don’t think this is Cork slang, but I still had to look it up: a scapular is a monastic cloak.

One of the small examples I made sure to note of how much I loved McInerney’s writing and different way of saying something, there is a scene where Ryan is at his dad’s … addiction intervention, for lack of a better word, and he storms out because his dad is blaming him for him being there at all. He’s crying. But instead of McInerney saying that, or some other usual way, she writes:

Back out in the cark park, one foot after another and blinking desperately, as if every drop squeezed was poison. Ryan had just cleared his vision when he reached Joseph and the car, but he was still sniffing salt and slime back down his throat as if his life depended on their sustenance.

I just love that, and can relate to that visceral description. Self-medication doesn’t exorcise our demons, or ghosts, unfortunately. Ryan repeatedly had to learn that lesson with respect to his dad.

The story is one of those ones with a large cast of characters who end up being entangled in the same web over the course of about five years. So, Ryan Cusack is one of six kids growing up with an alcoholic, abusive single-father, Tony Cusack, and he loses his virginity to Karine D’Arcy, and they fall in love thereafter. As alluded to, to self-medicate, Ryan is a “little gangster” who deals dope, but also samples his own stash and like his father, drinks heavily.

Meanwhile, Georgie falls into sex work and drugs at 15, and her older boyfriend goes to their former brothel-turned-apartment-for-Maureen to retrieve her scapular. Maureen, frightened at a seeming intruder, kills him. She calls Jimmy and Jimmy calls on his old friend Tony, and they discard the body. After turning a few more tricks, and getting raped after one of them, Georgie happens upon a Christian cult of a kind, who ostensibly will help her break her drug habit and escape sex work. Instead, it leads to getting pregnant by one of the other cult members, and then his rich parents and the cult leaders take the baby away from her.

Ryan and Karine begin devolving, too, because Ryan goes to prison for drug possession, and while he was in prison, Karine slept with one of his classmates, got pregnant, and had an abortion (which I don’t think she ever reveals to Ryan). To get back at her and “self-medicate” again, Ryan also begins sleeping around. They are one of those destructive co-dependent relationships built more on pain and insecurity than authentic love. That’s why they repeatedly ask for assurances, “You really love me?” Or use sex as a cover. It’s hard to read in that way, especially because I was rooting for Ryan to get his life together, but right out of prison, he goes back to dealing dope.

As McInerney notes on page 304 (of my hardback Duggan Books edition) through the character Izzy, one of Ryan’s cousin’s friends, “It’s a shit thing to be someone else’s religion.” She’s trying to talk sense into Ryan, and unfortunately, it is to no avail.

Worse still, Ryan hasn’t told Karine that he cheated first, or at least, he was made to think he cheated first. See, Ryan’s neighbor, Tara, who is a madam and also in cahoots at times with Jimmy, hates Tony and wants to get back at him. But she’s also probably a psychopath? Because she lures a then-15-year-old Ryan to her house when he’s trying to avoid his abusive dad, gets him drunk, and rapes him. Afterwards though, she tells Tony it was Ryan coming on to her, and she set it up to make Ryan think he willingly did it, only adding to his self-harming. He later tries to kill himself, and even later, tries to kill himself again before Maureen intervenes to save his life.

Meanwhile, Maureen is just in a total feck it mode toward the end of her life. She also had a baby (Jimmy) taken away from her by her ultra-religious parents and she was sent to London. Apparently, when your baby gets taken from you, you get sent to London (that’s what happens to Georgie later in the book, too). Therefore, in Maureen’s mind, it’s time to get back at Ireland and to get back at the Church, so she becomes a nascent arsonist burning her home down, and then a nearby church.

This book is about how characters get swallowed up by a city’s deprivations into its darkest corners, and can’t seem to find their way to the light. Drugs, tricks, poisonous love, violence, rape; it’s all here, the underbelly slashed open and the guts spilling onto the page. The city, Cork, and the country at large, is a character in that way, the ultimate villain that even Jimmy is afraid of swallowing him up (he calls Cork “his city,” but like any criminal leader, he’s afraid of being replaced by the young “pups”). As Ryan pontificates, man defies Newton’s Laws of Motion, where every force in the universe has an opposing force to balance it. The “pig-headedness of people” pushes back against the Laws of Physics, Ryan says. Sure, the meat and bones of men must obey this push-and-pull dynamic, but the “real meat of men, their thoughts and actions and utter arrogance, ignores the processes the universe has run on for aeons [different spelling than us!].”

“We’re all gods when we fucking feel like it,” Ryan concludes.

That’s the book, like? [That’s how they would use “like” in the book.] Men slinging their real meat around as a giant feck you to the universe, even if its this tiny part of the universe, aka Cork, Ireland. Uh, pun intended, too.

In a way, these broken characters are that opposing force to the “city.” Without that opposing force of broken bodies and souls, would it be a city? Would it be Cork? Ireland? The Church?

But I have to reiterate, the book is also funny? That’s the marvelous, impressive achievement McInerney has pulled off here. To present an authentically dark book that is deeply affecting, but also hilarious. Especially in the little moments between Ryan and Karine, when they are messing with each other (in the actual silly way), and especially when they are dreaming of a life outside of Cork.

Ultimately, though, despite dealing with terribly flawed characters who keep flawing it up, as the book title indicates, there is a certain amount of glory in these heresies. To push back, even if it doesn’t amount to much of anything, or even if you end up falling back down the hill, at least you pushed back. At least you swung that meat in the opposite direction Newton and his Law theorized. That is not to say McInerney is glorifying drug use, or addiction, or prostitution, or violence, but that she is presenting these deeply human people trying to rise above their lot in life, and finding it insurmountable. Authentically insurmountable.

If you’re looking for a little “craic” in your fiction, with a heavy dose of darkness that makes you think, I highly recommend McInerney’s book. Heck of a feckin’ debut book, like.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s