It’s rare these days to come across a story that actually makes me laugh out loud. Peter Murphy’s book was funny enough to entice a giggle more than once and had me with a ridiculous Mona Lisa smirk on my face for at least the first half. The novel is, however, as tragic as it is funny, so the smirk was pretty soon wiped off my face.
John Devine: born in a storm and named for the disciple; brother of James; and favourite of Jesus, is the only child of Lily, a deeply Catholic mother. The story is that of a teenage boy growing up in small town, rural Ireland. He is unnaturally obsessed with Harper’s Compendium of Bizarre Nature Facts, and becomes an amateur expert on parasitic worms. Plagued by nightmares about crows, his only real social contact is with his sanguine, chain-smoking mother, and his devious, chocolate-eating neighbor, Phyllis Nagle.
At the age of fifteen, John finally makes his first real friend in the form of Jamey Corboy, another social mis-fit with a passion for the French poets: boy-genius Rimbaud and Verlaine. Opposites in personality, but both lacking a real companion, they are drawn into each other’s orbits: Jamey, the flamboyant, posh artiste, and John, the home-body, strongly under his mother’s bible-quoting influence. Over the course of a hot, steamy summer, John is introduced to smoking and booze; he experiences his first sexual encounter; and consorts with a group of suspicious, felonious characters that he and Jamey can’t seem to extricate themselves from. After a night of wild drinking, John and Jamey desecrate the interior of a church, and although John is the one responsible for the majority of the damage, Jamey ends up in a home for adolescent boys. Jamey bears no malice towards John, but from this point on the relationship is altered. Jamey sends him letters and stories he’s written, but John never replies. John’s primary focus is now re-directed towards his dying mother, although he obviously still desires contact with Jamey.
With smatterings of Irish humour and tenderness, this coming of age story is spell-binding. Both boys have wonderfully likable personalities, and the interactions between the families of both, and the insinuation of the interfering neighbor, add a delightful quirk to the story.