American author Douglas Kennedy doesn’t construct a flattering portrait of Dublin in his new novel, writes Alan O’Riordan
“Once-stately Georgian buildings in various states of disrepair. Litter everywhere. And grim blocks of modern apartments … just down the street from this near-derelict square. The rain kept coming down. Every time I peered out, the view became even more depressing.”
It’s certainly not a flattering portrait of Dublin, with its “suicidal gloom”, its “mildewed chill,” that the ever-prolific Douglas Kennedy paints in his latest novel, The Great Wide Open. And yet, his is a fond account of a very different city, based closely on his own experiences as a Trinity student and theatre manager in the 1970s.
What he found in that Dublin, he tells me as we sit in the Fitzwilliam Hotel was space to read and write, and freedom from the American “success ethos”. Not that success has eluded Kennedy. He’s sold some 16 million books.
He’s come a long way, as they say, but in those days it was very different.
“I ran a fringe theatre company,” he recalls.
“We lived off box office share … You could read here. You could live on very little. I discovered it was sexually quite wild as well, like most Catholic countries, and very freewheeling. Dinner would go on till three in the morning… It was a place where the written word was take seriously, and it gave me space to start writing.”
It’s that kind of freedom that Kennedy grants to the central character in The Great Wide Open, Alice Burns.
Kennedy readily admits he feels comfortable writing for women. He quotes his second wife, a “Canadian shrink”, who told him it was because he was always trying to explain his mother – “an extremely complicated woman” – to himself.
The book is very much Alice’s Bildungsroman, following her from high school to early adulthood. But it also digs into one of Kennedy’s abiding themes: “family and secrets”.
Indeed, it’s one particularly juicy family secret that he revisits here. It was, he relates in the New York drawl of a polished storyteller, the eve of his departure for Dublin.
“My father took me out to what he called his ‘Jap joint’, in that very politically incorrect way people had of speaking back then. It was this restaurant in the ’40s near his office. We are sitting there drinking saketinis. My dad starts telling me this story.
“I remember some months later in Trinity,” he continues. “I was seeing a woman who was quite the Marxist. I told her once about my dad, and she said, ‘That’s horrible. How do you live with the shame?’ I said, frankly it’s really interesting. That ended that with her! She would say it’s American exploitation and imperialism, but I would say, no, it’s family and secrets. I think that was the moment I started becoming a novelist.”
Kennedy was estranged from his father by the time he died in 2014. But his semi-biographical portrayal in The Great Wide Open is not unflattering.
Like Kennedy’s father, Burns’ father is of working-class Irish stock, married, as Kennedy’s father was, to a middle-class Jewish wife. They shared, like the Burnses, what Kennedy calls a “desperately unhappy” marriage.
“I don’t feel bitter in any way about that,” he says.
“It was liberating in some ways. I started getting out of the house a lot, began to travel in my own way, and I’m still a big traveller. I live in a variety of places, I’ve been to 65 countries and I’m a culture nut. That all started very young as an antidote to this mess at home.”
Alice’s own negotiation between family ties and freedom is the heart of the book, but the family structure also works as it might in a Victorian novel, as the reader’s way into a wider society – in this case, the United States between the late1960s and mid-1970s.
“I was starting very much to think about my generation in the States,” Kennedy says, “and about how we’ve really f**ked it up… We really have.
“I was writing at the start of 2016, nervously looking to the future, before, you know, the yellow clown even seemed like a possibility for the White House. And I continued writing through his improbable election and the aftermath.”
Perhaps inevitably, Donald Trump makes a cameo in the book.
“I was thinking about people I knew from my generation who had been architects of neoliberalism, about the way we destroyed the middle class. We’re a failed state now, I’d be the first to say that.
“What do we invest in? We certainly don’t invest in each other. Or infrastructure. We don’t invest in education, which is the most important thing a society can do.
Much of The Great Wide Open could be seen as a lament for lost worlds. Kennedy is a father of two children, both in their 20s. And, in that sense, his is a father’s lament. He compares the space and freedom he had with the constraints faced by millennials.
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It’s 1980s New York. Heady, excessive times. Alice Burns - a young book editor - is deep into a manuscript about the morass of family life. The observations resonates, perhaps because she has just watched her own family implode. As she reads she wonders: When did the sadness start? And could it be that unhappiness is a choice? Thus begins a great American epic which follows Alice as she navigates high school bullying, first love and sexism at an elite college, a spell in 1970's Ireland, and a tragedy that sends her stateside as the US embraces a cowboy actor named Reagan. But it is also the tale of her endlessly complex parents and brothers; how their destinies are written by the lies they tell themselves and others. The Great Wide Open is an immensely ambitious and compulsive saga; a novel which will speak volumes to anyone who has marvelled at that pain that can only be caused by family itself. . . . . #comeinbookshop #allthebooks #newarrivals #newarrival #bookshop #bookstore #barcelona #bookish #books #bookstagram #bookstagramfeature #bookworm #instabook #douglaskennedy #thegreatwideopen #penguinbooks #hutchinsonbooks
He enthuses about the Oscar-nominated film, Can You Ever Forgive Me?
“What’s wonderful,” Kennedy says, “is it gets New York at a certain point, pre-Giuliani, pre-monoculture, pre-Duane Reade pharmacies and banks everywhere. When you could actually be an artist and live in big cities.”
“It’s a terrible moment now,” he concludes.
“I feel we are in a similar position, without the Great War, as the Brits were in 1918. It’s the end of our empire. The 19th century was the British century, and the 20th was the American century without question, and it’s over. We are on a slide and we’ve done this to ourselves.”
And yet, and yet… You can still hear good jazz at Smoke, or the Vanguard, even if it’s at eye-watering prices these days. There are the consolations of art and travel, of watching one’s children make their way in the world.
It was with them in mind, too, particularly his daughter, that Kennedy wrote The Great Wide Open.
“Yes,” he says, “it is an attempt at a classic coming of age story. And it’s one where Alice bumps into the unfairness of life. ‘Why,’ she asks in the beginning, ‘in a family, is unhappiness so often a choice?’ In my experience that’s true. Happiness, also, is frequently a choice.”
The Great Wide Open is available now, published by Hutchinson