Denny Cullen left Ireland for Wales not too long ago. He hoped to break free of the drugs, drinking and violence that characterized his life in Dublin and start to find meaningful, or at least steady, work. But when his mother dies, he is called back home and quickly resumes the life he was trying to leave behind. This time, Denny has just enough clarity and almost enough willpower to begin to change things, but it often seems like he may be fighting a losing battle.
Denny is the protagonist of Trevor Byrne's debut novel, GHOSTS & LIGHTNING, and he is in keeping with the sort of anti-hero created by contemporary Irish and Scottish writers like Roddy Doyle and Irvine Welsh. While more sensitive than his mates, Denny is not above a fight, oogling a pretty girl, or using drugs to mask his feelings. But because readers are getting his point of view in first-person narrative, we understand a bit about his motivations. Raised, along with his sister and older brothers, mostly by his mother, Denny didn't have much growing up. At least when his father wasn't around, the home was cheerful. But his brothers had inherited an awful dark and violent streak from their father that scared Denny and put off his sister Paula.
Now it is just Denny and Paula alone in the house that their mother had made a home. Back from Wales, Denny must confront his sister's alcoholism, his brothers' anger, his father's absence, his friend's destructive habits and his own loneliness, all the while mourning his loss. As Denny and Paula continue to drink and do drugs to cope, the house, unfortunately legally owned by their brother Shane, starts to deteriorate --- a symbol of their own emotional deterioration. From séances to drug-induced black-outs, from camping trips gone awry to bleak house parties, Denny wanders aimlessly, and it is not until he finds himself surrounded by some interesting strangers that he begins to call on the strengths he has to find joy and purpose in life again.
Byrne, again like Doyle and Welsh, writes in the vernacular that will either be an exercise in authenticity or a frustration to readers. Despite the predictability of the narrative style and plot, GHOSTS & LIGHTNING has some wonderfully poetic and insightful moments. Once we find Denny drinking tea during a rainstorm at a small cafe inside a church, he is contemplative and awed by the simplicity, majesty and peacefulness of his surroundings. It is a well-conceived moment of reflection and quiet but inevitably spoiled by a drug dealer wanting Denny to work for him. Even in that place of solace, Denny feels haunted by his circumstance.
Sometimes funny and sometimes sad, Byrne's novel is highly stylized yet genuine. Denny feels, though somewhat familiar as a literary character, quite real. His friends and relatives are interesting as well, but Byrne doesn't delve too deep into their psyches; the focus is on Denny and even he remains a bit of an enigma. After his mother's death, there are no huge events for Denny to deal with. The book simply presents him as he is now, on the cusp of a belated coming of age and at the beginning of a soul-searching adventure.
Even when GHOSTS & LIGHTNING misses the mark, it is a good read: brisk and bittersweet, edgy and still humane. Denny is all at once an everyman, an Irish punk among many, and a thoughtful and unique individual. Byrne's first outing is sure to create many fans anxious to see what this strong young author can do next.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 22, 2011
Ghosts & Lightning