Review: Fiachra Sheridan – The Runners

Review of Fiachra Sheridan‘s debut novel The Runners from yesterday’s Sunday Business Post:

Dublin’s north inner city has never had it easy, but the 1980s were particularly deleterious.Unchecked urban decay, vertiginous unemployment figures and a deadly influx of cheap heroin made it a decade to forget for many of the capital’s poorest and most vulnerable.

But for Bobby Ryan and Jay McCann, the vivacious, impetuous 13-year-olds at the heart of Fiachra Sheridan’s debut novel, The Runners, the inner city in 1985 offers everything a boy could want – and more. Growing up in Ballybough, under the shadow of Croke Park, they fish in the Tolka river, swim at the pool on Sean McDermott Street and race each other past the Sunset House in Summerhill.

the runnersThis is primarily a novel about adolescent friendship. Written from the perspective of Bobby, it maintains a laudably naive tone as it follows the boys’ youthful japes, from robbing the local store to jumping the fence at a packed Dalymount to watch a Paolo Rossi-inspired Italy defeat Liam Brady’s Ireland.

While their friendship crosses class divisions – Jay comes from the flats while Bobby’s parents, despite surviving on welfare, own their home – social distinctions are never fully transcended. Bobby, we are told in typically simple prose, ‘‘was envious of Jay living in the flats. He had a real claim on being a Ballybough boy. Bobby pretended he was from the flats.”

The most important adult in the boys’ world is not a parent or a teacher, but Anto Burke, their Stardust fire scarred boxing trainer. A decidedly ambivalent character, Anto both instils discipline and determination in the headstrong youths and uses them to ferry drugs around the inner city, with predictably disastrous consequences for all.

Sheridan is a writer with an impressive family pedigree – his father is playwright and director Peter, uncle Jim is a serial Academy Award nominee – and The Runners is not without literary merit. The boys’ boxing and football-filled milieu is believably rendered, and the novel is studded with memorable scenes from their young lives, most poignantly when Bobby’s alcoholic father buys him a bargain bin England jersey instead of a Liverpool shirt for his birthday. (‘‘A fiver was all he was worth.”)

Sheridan employs a deliberately pared-back style but, at crucial points, particularly in the opening 50 pages, the story feels underwritten and slightly one-paced. The author seems to know the narrative he wants to tell so well that he neglects to put the hard graft into setting it up properly.

The demotic opening paragraph, with its description of ‘‘Dublin’s north inner city, one of the poorest parts of Dublin’’, reads more like the intro to a lazy news feature than the opening gambit of what is essentially a well realised, well crafted novel.

Sheridan’s narrative improves as Bobby and Jay’s childish innocence and their hopes and dreams are destroyed by the nefarious world of drugs and addiction that lives on their doorsteps. But the author’s determination to write in single-clause sentences and unembellished, flattened prose does leave some genuinely dramatic moments feeling strangely empty and stilted.

The engrossing, rather chilling denouement suggests that, with a little more verve, ambition and editorial work throughout, Sheridan might have had a real gem of a debut on his hands. Nevertheless, this intimate account of inner-city life is a respectable introduction for a writer with a bright future ahead of him.

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