Peter Murphy - John The Revelator
John The Revelator, Peter Murphy’s first novel, is often called a coming of age story. The protagonist, John Devine, begins the book aged eight and is living quietly with his chain-smoking single mother. As her ambiguous smoking-related illness progresses John’s story quickly evolves through the stages of puberty and into manhood, accelerated dramatically by his friendship at fifteen, with Jamey, a boy one year his senior.
Within seconds of their meeting Jamey has introduced John to smoking and very soon after, the worlds of alcohol, drugs, violence, crime and juvenile delinquency. John’s transformation from library-loving loner to young man of the world, with the added bonus that he is seemingly irresistible to all the older women in his life, is topped with his seduction by a sexy female teacher. Thus managing to pack all of his pubescent experiences into one hot summer by rebelling against the Church and society, getting in trouble with the law, losing his virginity, becoming mixed up in a gang, getting beaten up and turning into a hard drinking chain-smoker – what a summer!
His character compressed what it took me a decade to manage (minus the violence and gang crime), even though I grew up in a small city and he in what is portrayed as a large village – and I was no street-angel. I started smoking at eleven but thankfully gave them up when I took up drinking at thirteen. I quit this habit at fifteen when I had already witnessed enough alcohol abuse by adults to become convinced that alcoholism was the inevitable outcome for all those who drank.
My next three years were spent going out with friends and sisters, all of whom drank, but I was never enthused to partake. Quite the contrary. I was repelled by the transformation from interesting grown-up to babbling (and at times, dribbling) child-like drunk. Yes, we had fun, but I didn’t see enough of a correlation between the rise in the amount of alcohol consumed, and the level of fun had by all. I was no ring-leader when we were socialising, preferring to join in on whatever craic was being had, but I was out to chat, laugh and dance, which I was capable of doing on soda and lime and a relatively miniscule amount of money. But I did get a name for being too serious – mainly because I recoiled when extra-loud drunks imposed themselves upon our group. ‘What’s wrong with your friend? Go on, give us a kiss – it’s Christmas!’ being frequently heard.
I’ve sat through nonsensical ‘discussions’, ignored lewd comments and inappropriate behaviour, and witnessed violence – all in the name of the craic. I was sometimes criticised for spoiling the fun due to my sobriety; whereas drunks were excused for (and generally encouraged in) their behaviour.
As I turned eighteen I was given the ultimatum by an older sister: start drinking again or we’re not going travelling around Australia together! That night I sat in front of a double vodka and orange and forced myself to return to the land of drink.
I did go on to join in on the sessions and maybe I had more craic, but I rarely managed to get out of control enough to become impervious to the tedious, and at times, dangerous influences of alcohol.
I have continued an on-off relationship with alcohol throughout my life. Sometimes I was swayed back to it by friends who felt uncomfortable in a non-drinker’s company. In my late twenties I grew out of the influence of this peer-pressure but I did return to drinking in order have a social life that had been all but disallowed to a sober Irish adult during the eighties, nineties and beyond.
Reading John The Revelator I was reminded of a few coming of age stories such as Salinger’s, The Catcher in the Rye. And of Francie’s harrowing experiences of alcohol abuse, institutional schooling, the Church, and violence in Pat McCabe’s, The Butcher Boy. Another work that came to mind is The Guard by our ‘Irish Tarantino’, Michael McDonagh because it, too, shows the anti-Hollywood, warts and all, love it or leave it, real modern Ireland.
Finally, in a scene from John the Revelator that was weirdly more akin to a Waterboys wedding party than a funeral scene, the teenage John says: ‘I watched her drive off and went back inside The Ginnet and sat at the bar, but no matter how many drinks I threw down my throat, I couldn’t seem to get drunk.’
I enjoyed the originality of Peter Murphy’s debut work and look forward to hearing of his latest, Shall We Gather, at his Kilkenny Arts Festival reading along with Elliot Perlman on Wednesday, August 15th in the beautiful Parade Tower. But I’m especially anticipating his evening in conversation with Mike Scott which takes place later that day.