Saturday, July 5, 2014

The Devil I Know: a very short review

I've been reading all sorts of books about Ireland recently, some of them superb, some of them dreadful.

Claire Kilroy's The Devil I Know falls solidly into the superb category.

This is a book that entertains and delights on multiple levels.

Straightforwardly, it is a tale of a financiers and real-estate developers in Ireland during the great real estate speculation that preceded the credit crash of 2008. Together, Tristram St. Lawrence and Desmond Hickey purchase land for redevelopment:

He drove in the direction of the castle but pulled in at the old cement factory, which was located a few hundred yards shy of my gateposts and on the other side of the road. Only in Ireland would the acreage flanking a white sand beach be zoned for industrial use.


'this is me next project. I'm developing it for residential an commercial use.' He pointed out through the passenger window. 'There'll be an apartment block here,' we rolled along, 'an another here, an two over there. Eight blocks in total, ranging in height from three to eight storeys. We're looking at the guts of 400 residential units, with about 12,000 square metres of office an commercial space at ground level, to include a hotel.'

The tale of the chaos, ecstasy, and frenzy of those days is marvelously handled. Kilroy's light touch spirits us along through the absurdity of it all:

'You can't build an apartment complex in Ireland without a hotel.'

'Don't be ridiculous. Of course you can.'

'Ah see,' he said, 'you can an you can't. No investor will touch you unless you qualify for Section 23-type reliefs.'

'Section 23?'

'Tax write-offs. So we have to build either a hotel or a multi-storey car park or a hospital or a student residence. None a which are needed, but the way I see it, if you build a hotel, then at least you have a bar.'

At a slightly deeper level, The Devil I Know is about the power of greed and the tenacity of addiction. Tristram is an alcoholic, struggling with his addiction:

Engine rise, engine fall, engine rise, engine fall as Hickey turned memories over in his head. He swilled back another snifter and smiled at some recollection. Ahhhhh. He had entered the first stage of inebriation, which is perfect, just perfect: it is heaven. That mellow, impeccable stage when nothing can harm you. The log fire is crackling away on the inside and you are safe in your warm little snug. I'd have given my right arm to feel that way again. But I couldn't give my life.
But now Tristram is struggling with a new addiction as well.
My name, the zeros, my name, the zeros -- my eyes cranked up their shuttling. Money disrupts the cognitive process. It gums electrodes to your skull and scrambles your brain. That document was a test, I see now, of my character. A test I failed. Tristram St Lawrence I wrote at the bottom of the page. Everyone has a price.

As it turns out, as Kilroy observes, as Tristram sees as he enters this new phase of his life, he's not the only one struggling with this new addiction. The entire world, it seems, is on the verge of succumbing:

I looked at him. He believed it. All of them around the boardroom table had believed it too. They believed that the land had changed, and that they, the Golden Circle, were the agents of this change, that somehow, by linking hands around a table, or through the appliance of their balls, they had managed to perform alchemy upon Irish soil. Hickey grinned as he contemplated the open road stretching before us. Every light ahead had turned to green.

At yet a deeper level, something more mystical and meaningful is going on. This story is populated by angels and demons, by the living but also by the dead, by visions, by puzzles, by riddles. There are exultations of the highest joy, and there are nightmares of the deepest horror. What is real, what is fantasy?

To some extent, Kilroy is playing and dancing and spinning a tale, but at another level I think she is drawing a parallel, a metaphor. Real estate speculation requires a certain suspension of disbelief: you have to see a house where there isn't one; you have to see a family where only dirt exists; you have to see an alternate future instead of an old cement factory. This listening to the voices and visions in your head might be delusional and insane, but on the other hand it might be the creative process at work. Where is the line?

In the end, I think Kilroy sees herself as an observer, a journalist, a recorder of a strange time, a bizarre occurrence that came and went, and perhaps we will never come to understand it.

The historian squinted at the setting sun. I was stricken by an overwhelming sense of things coming to an end, of the torch being passed on, or not passed on, just extinguished. 'It's getting late,' he told me, barely telling me at all. 'It is time to leave the garden.'

I found myself at a loss and looked around frantically. Quite what I was searching for, exactly, I still do not know, and I possibly never will know, but I felt certain that I was forgetting something, that I was leaving some critical belonging behind, some vital possession without which everything, everything, everything would go awry. I appealed to the historian. 'Now, you mean?' I asked him, panic surging up my through. Doom, doom went my heart. 'Do you mean we're leaving now?'

'Yes, now, I'm afraid.'

I was afraid too. Afraid and unprepared. I glanced up. The sky was rapidly dimming.

He guided me to the exit -- or was it the entrance, and if so, the entrance to what? -- and he extended a crooked hand when we reached the crooked stile.

I, too, don't know what this is the entrance to, but I'm entranced to let Kilroy guide me there.

Kilroy is a wonderfully fluid, gifted, and skilled writer. Her writing is trememdously literate, weaving in references to Joyce, Faust, Shakespeare, the Bible and so much more. But her story is never ponderous and sluggish. The book was a joy to read.

If you're looking for a fun summer read, put Claire Kilroy's The Devil I Know on your list.

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