William King is a parish priest and author from Ireland who first came to my attention with his brilliant novel Leaving Ardglass, which was one of my favourite reads from 2011. That book told a heartbreaking story of two Irish brothers working on building sites in London in the 1960s, one of whom turned into a corrupt property magnate and the other who returned to Ireland to escape it all and become a priest. It was a compelling morality tale of what happens to those who put money before all else.
King's new book (which I promptly ordered direct from the publisher the day it was released) covers similar themes but this time the setting is modern day Dublin during the bubble-and-burst of the Celtic Tiger.
Ambition and greed
The story follows three main characters — middle-aged husband and wife Philip and Samantha Lalor, and Philip's bull-headed boss, Aengus Sharkey, the powerful CEO of a (fictional) bank, Nat Am. All three are ambitious and hungry for success.
When Is That All There Is? opens (the title, by the way, is from a song made popular by Peggy Lee in the 1960s) we meet Philip and Sam moving into their new glitzy home — a renovated monastery with all the mod cons. But the couple, who have two teenage children, rarely have time to enjoy it.
Sam has a high-powered job in an advertising agency, which takes her across the globe — to New York, to London — to help direct TV commercials. And Philip is an executive banker, working all the hours god sends him to keep the family leading the glamorous lifestyle to which they've become accustomed.
But in the background there are rumours of an impending crisis — there's been a run at Northern Rock, the British bank; Merrill Lynch, a subsidiary of the Bank of America, is in trouble; and the American investment bank Bear Stearns has collapsed. "No matter what rumours you hear, continue to lend," Sharkey tells his lending managers at an impromptu meeting, a mantra which eventually leaves him — and everyone else — high and dry.
Boom and bust
There's been a recent influx of excellent Irish novels set during the Irish boom and bust — Anne Enright's The Forgotten Waltz, Tana French's Broken Harbour, Claire Kilroy's The Devil You Know and Donal Ryan's The Spinning Heart — but this is the first one I've read that really looks at the last few months before the crash and examines the moral culpability of those in the thick of it. To what extent did they know what was coming? And what could they have done (if anything) to prevent it?
While King doesn't cast judgement, his portrait of Ireland's boom — the easy credit, the ostentatious wealth, the corporate greed — and the emptiness of people's lives is not a flattering one.
And while the narrative is somewhat predictable — these people will surely get their comeuppance — King's ear for dialogue is superb, particularly the bawdy boardroom banter and the way in which Sharkey hoodwinks everyone by telling lies and half-truths to get what he wants. His motto, "you are what you have" could almost be the epitaph on Ireland's economic tombstone.