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May 28, 2017

Anarchist in the UK —Review, Penny Perrick

This dazzling book is categorised as autofiction, which means autobiography with added fibs — storytelling in both senses of the word. Its protagonist is a 20-year-old reincarnation of the author himself, a skinny, beautiful lad who, in spite of being stoned for most of his waking hours, has a way with words as slick and sudden as a flick knife. Some examples: “The reason women live longer than men is because murderers tend to outlive their victims.” On British coinage: “Ugly money with the Queen looking at you sideways, as though you pushed in beside her on a bus seat.”

Barry has left the Irish “Rainy Town” of his birth for London, to follow his girlfriend Kim Sutton, always referred to reverentially by her full name. He finds her living with a yoga teacher on whom Barry intends to inflict pain: “Yoga is not a martial art. It’s fine for premenstrual tension but it’s not going to stop a Doc Martens.”

This is 1979, a year not without incident but Barry, lurching muzzily around the uneasy city, cares as little about Margaret Thatcher, the new prime minister, as he does about IRA bombs.

Kim Sutton aside, everything and everyone else is put in his way to be derided or destroyed. Each chapter, marking a few weeks in the year, has a terse one-word title, such as Thigh, Rent and Dogs, printed in a jumpy typeface like a Sex Pistols record sleeve. Like the Sex Pistols themselves, punk is over and Barry regrets that they have become invisible, “living out their lives in angry retreat, like Nazis in Bolivia”. Instead there’s Irish dancing, “like watching a reanimated corpse battling rigor mortis”.

Barry’s infectious rancour is unsparing. He sneers at the Irish, for whom “treachery is a national pastime”, and mocks the English because even their drug dealers say “gosh” a lot. Effortlessly, Barry sees off a policeman sent to arrest him, a bunch of Soho tricksters and some thugs threatening “retro-cushions” over the matter of a stolen motorcycle.

He is as unsparing of himself: “Wherever I go, I bring death and cold water.” And: “I travelled light. I never packed a conscience.” Incredibly, this angry, addled boy is never out of work. Or perhaps not so incredibly, since he’ll take on hazardous jobs which only those addicted to PCP dust would accept.

In Ireland, he’d prospected for uranium. Now he joins the staff at Sellafield: “I make a pound for every person I poison with plutonium, and I just can’t spend it fast enough”. His flittering brain can’t get a hold on the here and now, always pulling him back to the past.

Elegant in a petrol-blue silk suit, taking tea at the Ritz, the warmth of the stained-glass ceiling reminds him of a sweltering job in a glasshouse in 1975 when his workmates told stories of sexual exploits. When a rich girl from Buenos Aires describes the aquamarine swimming pool of her childhood, he sees only the cold Irish river of home where “there were more suicides than swimmers”.

There are women on offer: a “puffy little full-breasted Mayo nurse . . . all handbag and hairspray and hope”, and a girl called Sofia who “made young men disappear in a puff of sexual uncertainty”. But they aren’t Kim Sutton, who has fled to France to get away from Barry’s druggy, violent presence.

At one point, Barry says: “The truth is what you tell when nobody is listening.” Since it’s unlikely that anyone will ever stop listening to such a breathtaking storyteller, the truth may stay untold.