It’s no surprise that Ciarán McMenamin and Irvine Welsh have hit the book promotion circuit together in recent days. They seem like a natural fit as McMenamin’s debut, Skintown, is strongly reminiscent of Welsh’s debut Trainspotting. The focus of both books is disaffected young men who turn to drugs and violence to break up the monotony of their days in poverty stricken towns, and both understandably carry a strong anti-English sentiment.
McMenamin may be familiar to some of you as an actor with significant TV roles on his resumé. My first encounter with his work was a few weeks ago at Mountains to Sea Book Festival where he was joined by two other debut novelists, Rory Gleeson and Karl Geary, for a chat about their respective works. When each of the novelists read I was instantly interested in buying McMenamin’s book. His acting talent and considerable performance experience paid off and his reading was dynamic and very funny. (Which by the way is not as common as you might think. Having been to many similar events, writers who can successfully read their work aloud are a tiny minority.)
Skintown takes place in Enniskillen, McMenamin’s home town, in the early 1990s. Rave culture provides a much-needed escape from boredom and the threat of daily sectarian violence. Vinny works in a chip shop with his mate Jonty and dreams of escaping to Belfast for a better life, but instead of taking constructive steps towards it he meanders through his days in a haze of joints and pints. One evening while doing a good Samaritan gesture for a girl he knows, he ends up in a car crash with two Protestants, Kyle and Grant, who only moments earlier were preparing to kick his head in due to Vinny getting ‘the old ashes rubbed on my forehead six Wednesdays before Easter Sunday’. (A very convoluted way of saying he’s a Catholic, and this would be one of my few complaints about the book; the occasional tendency to overwrite and use many words where one simple one would be better.)
Kyle and Grant propose a business deal whereby Vinny and Jonty go to a nightclub called Ned’s (based on the infamous Kelly’s in Portrush) to sell a huge haul of ecstasy tablets on behalf of the other two, and collect a fee for doing so. With the prospect of cash Vinny’s Belfast dreams swim into reality and so he and Jonty readily agree. The novel’s best set piece occurs when Vinny gets high on ecstasy for the first time in the club. Having had some experience of this myself (cough) I can vouch for the authenticity of the whole thing and it’s not just accurate, it’s very funny and filled with razor-sharp detail.
Skintown occupies the same territory as Trainspotting and also Rob Doyle’s Here Are the Young Men and it is certainly an enjoyable read and an accomplished debut. Where it fell apart for me was the ending which I won’t reveal here but which was foreshadowed throughout the book. It didn’t ring true and felt a little forced, as if McMenamin was pushing for a definitive ending which the book didn’t really need. That being said, I’m really looking forward to reading whatever he produces next.