The Gordon Burn Prize 2019: For The Good Times

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Set in 1970s Belfast, David Keenan’s vivid exploration of the Troubles is in the simplest terms: violent, explicit and provocative. The Ardoyne – a primarily working-class Catholic division of Belfast, and stronghold of the IRA – is navigated by Sammy and his friends, who will all stop at nothing to achieve their aim of establishing a Free State. Bobby Sands’ hunger strike and the political drama serves as a kind of backdrop to the narrative, with the novel itself documenting the day-to-day experiences of those involved in the conflict, from a rather unconventional Republican point of view.

A rather unconventional Republican point of view

The first-person perspective grants us a detailed insight into the rationale of the members of the IRA, and follows the events unfolding in Sammy’s life. Whilst the focus is overwhelmingly on Sammy’s thoughts and experiences, several other characters are also developed, albeit only in outline, and their egotistical personas seem to pervade over human emotion. Fuelled by sex, drugs and a thirst for violence, the characters often lack any kind of moral compass. A figure of prime importance is that of Tommy, who is simultaneously idolised and revered by Sammy. The interactions between the characters often seem as though they are taken directly from the comic books that they so admire, and the plot itself can easily be read as a game of cat-and-mouse.

Scenes of brutality taken straight from a Quentin Tarantino film

Rife with scenes of brutality that appear to be taken straight from a Quentin Tarantino film, the whirlwind of action leaves little time for character development, which makes it difficult to identify with the protagonists. Yet this appears to be a deliberate act taken by Keenan, who takes liberties to experiment with characterisation and form. I found this to be particularly effective in extreme moments, notably action-packed scenes and the taking of certain psychedelic drugs. Lengths are also taken to compare the Troubles to other historical events, and thus to place the story within the wider context of historical fiction. 

The novel is difficult to categorise into just one genre, and instead seems to merge a multitude of plots and subgenres, making it a fitting contender for the Gordon Burn Prize. Keenan deals with the role played by masculinity within society, and his attempt to capture what it was like to live in Belfast at the height of the Troubles is commendable in its blunt, unapologetic and uncensored state.

Difficult to categorise into just one genre

Frequent references to religion and pop culture reveal the social outlook of the period and serve to idealise the nature of the plot. ‘Christ Jayzus’ is mentioned both at the start and the end of the novel, and religion is depicted as a source of salvation, yet also a justification for the actions of Sammy and co. Often comedic in tone, Keenan takes a difficult and controversial topic and finds a way to discuss religion and politics in an open manner. This refreshing take on history is all the more relevant in today’s era of Brexit than ever, and I would recommend the book to anyone who is interested in the Troubles, and the impact that this period had – and continues to have – on society.

For The Good Times by David Keenan is nominated for the Gordon Burn Prize 2019 as part of the Durham Book Festival. The winner will be announced in Durham Town Hall on Thursday 10th October 2019 from 8pm. More information can be found at: https://durhambookfestival.com/programme/event/the-gordon-burn-prize/

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