David Keenan introduces For The Good Times

David Keenan discusses The Troubles, mobster humour, and his second novel For The Good Times

Feature by Ross McIndoe | 25 Jan 2019
  • David Keenan

Sheltered from the Glasgow winter by the hipster haven of BrewDog’s Merchant City bar, it’s two years almost to the day since we last met here to talk about David Keenan's debut novel This Is Memorial Device. That year saw the Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s election, instigating events that have dictated much of our cultural narrative ever since. In times of ever-deepening uncertainty, Keenan’s returning obsessions with reality, story and our capacity to shape the world in front of us seem all the more timely.

“Me, personally, I’m in a fairly similar place,” Keenan says when asked about the tumultuous years between his previous novel and For The Good Times. “One of the things about the culture at large that’s changed is it seems now that magic is out in the open. It seems like people have realised that there’s a battle for reality. And that becomes like a sort of magical battle. War deploying ideas, symbols, fake news, re-worked reels of film, all these different techniques to colonise reality. And I think my books have always dealt with the idea that reality is up for grabs, so it kind of coincides with that.”

Set in Belfast during The Troubles, Keenan's novel has become all the more relevant as each passing week of Brexit back-and-forth erodes the Irish border. “It’s really odd the way things have come together,” he acknowledges. “The border is up for question again. There is a very real reality that The Troubles could come back in some sense.” The timing is essentially coincidental though, he notes. “I always wanted to write a book about The Troubles, about Belfast. My dad’s family had grown up in Ardoyne so I heard a lot of stories of what went on during The Troubles, what a terrifying, dangerous place it was in so many different ways and how you really had to improvise your own life to survive, psychologically.”

Much like its predecessor, For The Good Times shows a particular fascination for the bonds between men, especially fathers and sons. Once again, Keenan can draw directly from his own experience. “Being around my dad and his brothers, I was so fascinated with these guys. I’m quite influenced by them. I looked up to the style they had; that kind of Perry Como style. My dad’s brothers were all very sharply-dressed, wore a lot of rings, a lot of gold chains, always had a suit jacket on,” he says, waving a heavily-banded hand before his own slick jacket, silver chain and neatly groomed beard. “I would sit around and just marvel at them. To me, it was like The Sopranos.”

Like Tony Soprano’s clan or their swaggering Scorsese brethren, the gangsters of For The Good Times are seductive not just because of their proximity to power and their sense of style, but for the quality of their conversation. They are at their most enticing just sitting around, slinging words at one another with relentless, inventive energy. “My dad and most of the guys he knew were illiterate but their facility for language was absolutely amazing,” Keenan explains. “Nobody can tell a story like those guys, nobody can use language in ways that’ll have you absolutely marvelling, that’ll have you crying with laughter. The art of storytelling.”

Moving from Airdrie to Ardoyne once again gave Keenan the chance to explore “the working class obsession with patter”. One of the most damning things you can say about an Irishman or a Scot is that they have no chat. Banter takes on an almost religious importance. “These Irish and Scottish guys, they have such faith in language. They have such faith that if you can only use language and tell the story correctly, there’s some kind of revelation there at the end of it.”

Just like the gruff Scottish tones of his first novel, For The Good Times' rat-a-tat Irish vernacular isn’t just a piece of literary ventriloquism, but a vital part of the novel’s exploration of how we determine our own narrative. “It’s always about language,” Keenan attests with a mad smile and an almost zealous glint in his eye. “How you use language, how language can transform. The political aspects of language, how we define things, how you are defined. How we play with language and tell our own story, how we reclaim to language and make it our own. The way that the working class interact with language, the way that, when you’re in a war zone or under siege, you lay claim to your own language and tell your story using that.”

Set in a place of poets and killers, told in hallucinatory oral narratives that melt into one another, blurring fact and fiction together; in many ways, Keenan’s latest seems most at home in the realm of Magic Realism. Asked once why so much of this sort of writing seemed to come from South America, Gabriel García Márquez responded with a story about a truck pulling up outside a school in a small village in Colombia. Two men got out, claimed to be from the government, and proceeded to pack all the school’s furniture into the truck. It was only as they disappeared over the horizon that anyone noticed they had shown no ID or offered any explanation for what they were doing. In Colombia, Márquez explained, reality did not play by the same rules. Strange things happened so often that no one thought them strange anymore.

“One of the inspirations for the book comes from a true story,” Keenan says. “We were back [in Ardoyne] visiting friends. My mum was a huge fan of Doctor Who and she was going past this comic shop and she saw this model of K-9 in the window, so her and my dad go into the shop and tell the guy at the counter they’re interested in buying it, and the guy is like 'I’m really sorry, I need to close the shop. My wife’s been kidnapped by the IRA and I need to go pay them some ransom money'. And my mum was just like, 'Cool, what time you opening tomorrow?' and he was like, 'Oh, nine o’clock as usual!'"

Just as in Márquez’s Colombia, reality’s borders have begun to bend. “It was only when we were on the ferry out of Belfast, when we lost the proximity to it, that we all kind of clicked out of it. Like, how the fuck did we all think that was normal?”

Many of the most famous works of Magic Realism were born, in part, from the colliding realities of post-colonialism. As one nation’s culture, its folklore and tradition, are assaulted by an invading force’s worldview, magical stories emerge from the conflict to harmonise the two. “That’s maybe what we’re talking about in terms of magic overwhelming all of us,” Keenan suggests. “Reality really is up for grabs because of the invention of the internet. It’s a whole new continent that we’re all battling to define.”

Times were strange two years ago, and they’ve only got stranger. As we head into 2019, hoping to tell a better story than we did the one before, Keenan’s tale of blurred reality and banter will make for an excellent start.

For The Good Times is out 24 Jan via Faber & Faber