BOOK REVIEW: TOM JOAD & ME BY OWEN O’NEILL…

 

Tom Joad and Me is the debut novel from veteran comedian, poet, playwright, occasional actor and Cookstown native Owen O’Neill.

Set in the early to mid-1970s the novel is narrated by young Emmett McCrudden who flees his violent alcoholic father and the onset of sectarian conflict in the small Tyrone town of Carricktown to re-invent himself in London. Inspired by the hero of John Steinbeck’s classic novel The Grapes of Wrath set in depression-era America, he adopts the alias Tom Joad on his arrival in the Smoke.

The novel is partly autobiographical. The lead character is from a large working class family growing up what is clearly a thinly disguised fictional version of Cookstown – which O’Neill has often alluded to in his stand-up comedy.

But funnily enough this isn’t the first time a fictionalized Cookstown has featured in a novel.

In Utterly Monkey by another Cookstown man Nick Laird, the lead character’s home town is known as Ballyglass, but the fact that it is described as having the longest widest street in Ireland is a bit of a giveaway. The hero in Laird’s novel which also appears to be partly autobiographical is a corporate lawyer in a London city firm though – a very different beast to the young working class brickie Emmett McCrudden/Tom Joad.

The theme of the young Tyrone lad in the big city has also been explored in other recent works – such as Colin Broderick’s novel Church End and his two volumes of memoirs Orang Utan and That’s That. In Ciaran Ward’s short story Chance Encounter, as published in the online literary journal Honest Ulsterman the main character bumps into an old schoolfriend on the London underground from his town of Ballycappal, which would appear to be a fictional amalgam of Omagh and Strabane. And to add Michelle Gallen’s two recent novels Big Girl Small Town and Factory Girls into the mix we seem to be going through something of a golden age of Tyrone writers!

While the general themes of Tom Joad – growing up in an impoverished family on the verge of implosion, alcoholism, sectarian conflict, coming under peer pressure to join the local paramilitary outfit, the young Irish labourer in London, the small town boy in the big city and the general ex-pat experience – are not unfamiliar topics in contemporary literature (or any number of Pogues songs for that matter), O’Neill nevertheless brings his own unique style to the page and lets it flow effortlessly. The result is a fast-moving very readable work with quite a few unexpected twists and turns along the way. Although not a comic novel as such, it has its fair share of comedy, including some very dark humour – all related with O’Neill’s inimitable flair.

There are the colourful local characters who seem to inhabit every small town, the contrast between insular, parochial Carricktown and cosmopolitan London, the sexual escapades and drug or alcohol-induced adventures, including a particularly disturbing acid trip.

Of particular note is the phonetic spelling O’Neill uses in the dialogue to denote the different characters’ accents. In the melting pot of London Joad comes across Australians, New Zealanders, Nigerians, Caribbean islanders and a Yorkshireman and their dialects are faithfully reproduced the way their words are spoken.

The novel energetically captures the spirit of early to mid-1970s West London and the contemporary pub music scene. This is explored when Joad takes up a side hustle as a journalist with an underground music magazine and reviews the trendy acts of the era like Dr Feelgood and Ian Dury.

The autobiographical nature of the book also leaves one wondering whether certain events actually happened to the young O’Neill in real life. There is actually one tragi-comic incident involving a pair of platform shoes in a night club which is almost identical to an apparently true story he relates on a radio podcast. So we can assume some episodes are based on reality, although we can probably also assume a degree of exaggeration and embellishment for literary purposes.

There is one particular passage which struck a chord with me as it neatly sums up the Irish ex-pat experience:

“Fast Eddie (the foreman at the building site where young Joad works) made a comment to me once about Ireland when he was drunk which really chimed. ‘He said Ireland to me is like being at a best friend’s wedding. You know you have to be there. You know the craic is good and you can act the bollocks and make a fool of yourself, but by the end of the day you’ve had enough and want to get as far away from these people as possible’.

That summed it up for me. I had come to London to become someone else, and I was never going to be able to achieve that if I kept going back every five minutes to be reminded of who I was”.

Tom Joad and Me can be pre-ordered from Thirsty Books.

Tickets are available for the book launch taking place at the Irish Cultural Centre, Hammersmith, London on Wednesday 5th June 2024.


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