Tomorrow, the shortlist for the 2013 Desmond Elliot Prize — an award for new writers — will be announced, so what better time to review Kevin Smith's Jammy Dodger, which is on the longlist?
Set in 198os Belfast, this debut novel is a darkly comic tale about an audacious literary hoax that goes awry.
The narrator is bohemian slacker Artie Conville, who is joint-editor of a poetry magazine called Lyre — and subtitled "A Supplement for the Imagination" — which is funded by quarterly grants from the government aimed at "normalising life in the province". Most of the money goes on booze and long lunches and it allows the pair to drift along without ever having to worry about the usual 9 to 5 regime of normal adult life.
But when the grant money looks like drying up, Artie and his co-editor Oliver Sweeney dream up a rather bold and cheeky way to keep the money coming in — they fill the magazine with poetry they have penned themselves but publish it under a pseudonym. This cunning plan looks to be a success until the powers that be want to meet this new exciting poet in person and have him go on a literary tour around Northern Ireland...
An Irish twist
If you think this sounds strangely like the Ern Malley affair, you'd be right. The book does pretty much mirror the events of a real life literary hoax in 1940s Australia.
But Jammy Dodger gives it an Irish twist and the way that Smith cleverly contrasts the beauty of poetry with the godawful violence of The Troubles — which are only ever mentioned in passing — shows a real flare for black comedy.
Sandwich boards on the pavement outside the newsagent’s proclaimed the day’s headlines: Six Soldiers Killed in Lisburn Bombing, (Long, long the death …), Provos Claim Fun-Run Slaughter, (… Lost lanes of Queen Anne’s lace / And that high-builded cloud …), Ten Civilians Injured In No Warning Blast, (… Moving at summer’s pace.)
Peopled with quirky characters who get dangerously embroiled in a series of strange events, Jammy Dodger is one of those books that is a joy to read.
It's not just the one-liners, of which there are plenty — "‘How’s the wine? Is it amusing?’ he asked, slapping my shoulder. ‘Oh, it’s hilarious. Just don’t get any in your mouth’" — nor the succession of very funny set pieces throughout, but the way it sends up the art world and pokes fun at the whole pretentiousness of literary circles and egotistical writers, including the ways in which certain people are fawned over while talentless wannabes think they are god's gift to literature.
That said, it also reveres and celebrates literature. It name-checks so many classic authors and poets, it's enough to warm the very cockles of your heart. Indeed, if you love poetry and poets, then I doubt you'll find a better novel that celebrates this particular art form. But for me (who doesn't know very much about poetry) I loved the James Joyce references:
After lunch (beans on toast), I continued with Ulysses. God it was intense! Hallucinatory almost. The detail. The energy. The flow. The colours. Paris rawly waking, crude sunlight on her lemon streets … Moist pith of farls … the froggreen wormwood … mouths yellowed with the pus of flan Breton … rolls gunpowder cigarettes through fingers smeared with printer’s ink … sanguineflowered … Old hag with the yellow teeth … Green eyes … the blue fuse burns deadly … orangeblossoms … breeches of silk of whiterose ivory … a dryingline with two crucified shirts … Pure poetry. Every page. Totally absorbed, I read until I realised the afternoon had gone and then feeling thoroughly Bloomish strolled round to Kavanagh’s for a pint and a plate of stew.
The book isn't just a comedy, however. A gentle romance is interwoven into the narrative, which sounds soppy written down like this, but is actually quite touching, because it makes Artie feel like a proper flesh-and-blood character.
On the whole, Jammy Dodger is the kind of novel that might normally have slipped under the radar had it not been for its Desmond Elliot Prize nomination, of which it's a very worthy contender. It's a laugh-out-loud funny satire, sharp and witty one moment, tender and painfully honest the next, all delivered with a lightness of touch that marks Smith as a writer to watch.