O'Hanlon's 'Paddy': love, violence, liquor


"Knick Knack Paddy Whack," by Ardal O'Hanlon. Henry Holt. 244 pages. $23.

I wanted to love this book and thought that I would; thought that the sentence you are now reading would say: I love this book.

I don't.

Except for frequent humor -- the work of a successful Irish stand-up comic navigating his first novel -- I barely liked it. Not because it didn't promise a good read (much of the material involves characters my own age going through a similar time and trials if not place), but because it failed to deliver that promise.

The difference between a clever sketch and genuine story is not measured in pages. It is the difference between Pinocchio the puppet and Pinocchio the boy. Ardal O'Hanlon has carved a witty marionette that drinks, fights, drinks, dances to bad, 1980s pop music, does things with the opposite sex that often follow drinking and curses in caustic Irish slang.

But it never comes alive.

In an early chapter, describing the sensation of escaping guilt through booze and more guilt, O'Hanlon writes in the voice of his young protagonist, Patrick Scully: " ... like when you drink a whole bottle of gin and hide in a wardrobe and just cry because you don't know anything and you're unknowable and nobody wants to know you anyway."

And then Scully remains virtually unknowable for the rest of the book, to us and to himself. It is no small trick to know one's self at any age and perhaps I am being unfair to a young writer and his young hero. Yet when more than half the book has come and gone, Scully is still giving first-person accounts of a "typical day" in his life.

Even in a coming-of-age novel -- one in which lovemaking is compared to "tango dancers with Parkinson's" -- we should be intimate with the common threads of a main character's day. We should know without having to be told because the story will have turned a corner or two.

Francesca is a confessor of a different flavor. Scully's reluctant girlfriend, like him a virgin when the novel opens, Francesca gives her side of the story in diary entries that alternate with chapters about Scully's carousing.

While Scully describes the reason his widowed mother refused to eat in restaurants -- "She didn't approve of eating something she hadn't personally boiled the [expletive] out of ..." -- Francesca shares more poetic reflections.

After partaking in a common betrayal, the kind that makes you wonder if you'll ever really know yourself, Francesca warns snoopers: "If anyone is reading this, please stop now."

That always works.

And then, reflecting in one of her last entries, she says: "I feel as if I'm preparing the closing speech for the defendant on the Day of Judgement."

But O'Hanlon has prepared us to judge the wrong character in his tale of love, violence, liquor and devotion to friendships in which such loyalty violates everything that makes sense; if not in Ireland, certainly in this world.

But I won't ruin the story for you.

That privilege is O'Hanlon's.

Rafael Alvarez is a reporter for The Sun. He was recently awarded a "Rising Star Award" from the Maryland Center for the Book for his fiction. Alvarez's new collection of short stories -- "Orlo and Leini" -- will be published next month by Woodholme House.

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