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Ordinary Decent Criminals, Page 1

Lionel Shriver


  The Borough Press

  An imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers

  1 London Bridge Street

  London SE1 9GF

  Published by HarperCollinsPublishers 2015

  First published by Farrar Straus and Giroux 1990

  Copyright © Lionel Shriver 1990

  Cover design © HarperCollinsPublishers 2015

  Cover photograph ©

  Lionel Shriver asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work

  A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

  This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it, while at times based on historical figures, are the work of the author’s imagination.

  All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on-screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, down-loaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins e-books

  Source ISBN: 9780008134778

  Ebook Edition © 2015 ISBN: 9780008134785

  Version: 2015-08-18

  Praise for Ordinary Decent Criminals:

  ‘Lionel Shriver is an original, by turns exuberantly comic, whimsical and cruel … The men – performers, compulsive talkers whose insistent self-revelation masks their emptiness – are wonderfully captured. This is a love story, and a surprisingly moving one. But Shriver’s edgy, accurate wit, her ear for rhetorical inflation and self-deception, and her refusal to be conned by personal or political platitudes expand her novel: its real subject is the seductiveness and sadness of Belfast itself’Independent on Sunday

  ‘Shriver has obviously immersed herself deeply in Belfast life at the cellar-bar level … That Shriver is an uncommonly gifted writer is obvious even in the early pages. This is an unusual and impressive achievement’Spectator

  ‘Shriver doesn’t rely on the glamour of violence or political intrigue for dramatic effect: she consciously shuns the hackneyed Romeo-and-Juliet yarn and the IRA-bomber-with-a-heart-of-gold cliché … The background details and dialogue ring very true to life; and the story is anchored in a recognisable Belfast. Shriver was able to infiltrate the local ethos and quickly assimilate its culture … Humour is a vital element in the novel. Shriver has a mischievous, hard-edged wit which borders on the cynical … The author’s indifferent comic perspective is best revealed in the novel’s “Glossary of Troublesome Terms.” Doubling as an often hilarious guide to Ulster politics and an astute mini-essay on the complicated nature of the situation, the glossary contains the kind of home truths which have eluded political analysts for decades’Independent

  ‘If this is a love story, Lionel Shriver is no romantic, and the myths of the misty isle have failed to seduce her. She writes about self-destruction with all the muscular confidence of her leather-wearing heroine. Sentence after truthful sentence comes cruel, fresh and clever … As Ms Shriver observes, the last thing the civil war in Northern Ireland needs is another book. What a surprise then to find she has written a novel which is alight with perception, complexity, originality and, yes, laughter’Daily Mail

  ‘Shrewdly caustic and unexpectedly moving … Ordinary Decent Criminals spares no one, offers no hope and – here’s the kicker – is bitingly funny … Wheelers and dealers, outspoken sentimentalists, dreamers and hoodlums all hope to profit from the violence; they would, in fact, be lost without it … Shriver is a gifted mimic. Born in North Carolina and educated in Columbia University, she’s gobbled Northern Ireland down and recreated it on the page with deceptive ease. At times, the book reads as if it were written exclusively for her Belfast co-residents. If Americans get it, that’s fine. If they don’t, it’s their loss … The bracing, acid wit and rich hyperbole are constant and a little terrifying. Who can be this cynical about horrors? Shriver can—and for a purpose. You may think she’s numbing you with her wisecracking nightmare when actually she’s leaving you all the more vulnerable to her final devastating plot twist. That’s the ultimate paradox in this feverish book. Ordinary Decent Criminals quivers with enticing energy, seduces you with its nervous amoral appeal’Washington Post

  ‘One of the shrewdest, most disturbing pieces of fiction this place has thrown up in twenty years. Ordinary Decent Criminals reveals a considerable intellect at work in tandem with an acute ability to discern our deeper motivations. There is also a terrific sense of humour, sharp and sympathetic’Belfast Ulster News Letter

  ‘[Shriver] says more about wee Ulster than dozens of other novelists before her put together. ‘Calcified with self-pity’ is one phrase that lingers’Belfast Irish News

  ‘An uptight, acerbic thriller with no limits on intensity, and no concessions to sentimentality’Belfast Fortnight

  ‘Here indeed is that rare bird – a novel set in Northern Ireland and written by an American which eschews the simplistic drawing of battlelines, which refuses to see the people of the North as merely Orange or Green, but as an assembly of ordinary decent sinners, and which portrays neither heroes nor martyrs … One of the most insistent themes in Ordinary Decent Criminals is that the people of the North are excited by their Troubles, and would die of boredom if they ended … Certainly Lionel Shriver is not bored by the Troubles, and no reader could be bored by this novel, enlivened by a sizzling ironic humour’Dublin Sunday Tribune

  ‘Lionel Shriver being a young American who found her way to Belfast in 1987 to write a novel, chances were her book would be tinged either with Noraid naivety or the blood thirst of a war-zone junkie. But Ordinary Decent Criminals is neither; instead, it is an unflinching and bleakly comic novel that sees through the sloganeering of both sides while retaining a feel for the local colour, orange or green … This is a haunting tale, set against a background where to sit on the fence is to ride barbed wire’Glasgow Herald

  ‘Shriver passes the accuracy test with very high marks.… The argot is accurate, and the fine detail of republican West Belfast and bourgeois South Belfast rings true. The author, moreover, has added richness by bravely including much local allusion which will only be appreciated locally … Shriver writes with great power’Times Literary Supplement

  ‘Shriver knows her Belfast and her speckled politics, and yet, like her heroine, she has a salutary detachment. She too knows that there is a world elsewhere and has a deep-rooted suspicion that all the nonsense is not about republicanism or loyalism but about wish-fulfilment and the perpetuation of alternative systems of power … At one stage she makes Estrin say truthfully: ‘The last thing this place needs is another book.’ Yet if the place must be written about, I suppose a ‘jeer on both your houses’ is as good a stance as any’Irish Independent

  ‘Any novel about the Northern Ireland troubles that opens in the Bushmills whiskey distillery has clearly got a useful perspective … American author Lionel Shriver maintains a keen sense of proportion between the fabric of the Troubles and the individual lives of her three-dimensional characters; in addition, she’s caught the flavour and the language of the city where she’s lived since ’87 with astonishing deftness, without either showiness or romanticism’London City Limits

  ‘A big read that never flags and that I pursued with ever-increasing delight … Ms Shriver writes a bouncing, buoyant prose that carries one along as merrily as a band of roisterers hell-bent f
or glory. And she has beautifully caught that air of desperate wryness that people on the edge of danger are supposed to exhibit. Her novel is as life enhancing as an optimistic outlook or a good laugh. Buy it and see’Irish Sunday Press

  ‘“All people know about Northern Ireland is what they see on television,” says Bill Rolston, lecturer at the University of Ulster and part-time pulp authority. “[Troubles] novels, apart from being truly awful, help to perpetuate that ignorance.” Rolston does however pick out a few acceptable popular fiction examples. Troubles by Naomi May merited inclusion, alongside Seamus Heaney, in The Rattle of the North. Also spared is Ordinary Decent Criminals by an American woman named Lionel Shriver’Guardian

  ‘This is a streetwise book, inasmuch as Shriver, an outsider, pretends to an insider’s authority on the situation she portrays. That she carries it off as well as she does, particularly at the level of personal relationships, counts as an achievement’Irish Press

  ‘This is an exceedingly powerful, inspired novel. Shriver is an American living in Belfast, the setting for her engrossing story. She brings to this benumbed and blighted city an outsider’s eye and ear … Shriver’s writing is outstandingly lucid and bright, with an original blend of American and Irish whimsical irony. Commanding both the sweep of Irish politics and the nuances of human relations, she draws a splendid map for getting nowhere’U.S. Publisher’s Weekly

  ‘Ordinary Decent Criminals proposes an entire politics of paradox: people who fight for peace love to be at war. Estrin feathers nests in order to leave them. Farrell keeps himself intact for the pleasure of flirting with destruction. Only the author can triumph in such an arena, and Shriver does … Shriver’s prose, frequently gnomic and invariably unpitying, offers virtually none of those made-for-TV movie devices that neatly freeze-dry settings, heroes, subplots. Writing for the pleasure of her story, she allows the reader to fill in the lacunae there. And she rightly trusts herself to recreate a wide range of universes. In Female of the Species, she dealt with anthropologists studying African tribes; in Checker and The Derailleurs, with rock musicians in Astoria. Here she’s even bolder. Her Belfast is stripped of martyrologies, serving Estrin and Farrell as moonlit nights or certain Manhattan nightclubs do lovers in less ambitious, less convincing fiction’New York Village Voice


  To the Old Man:

  Revenge is tribute

  In case of difficulty with acronyms,

  jargon, and the morass of Irish history,

  the reader is urged to consult

  the Glossary of Troublesome Terms

  at the back of this book.

  ‘Happiness is often presented as being very dull but, he thought, lying awake, that is because dull people are sometimes very happy and intelligent people can and do go around making themselves and everyone else miserable. He had never found happiness dull. It always seemed more exciting than any other thing, with promise of as great intensity as sorrow to those people who were capable of having it’

  Ernest Hemingway Islands in the Stream

  Table of Contents


  Title Page


  Praise for Ordinary Decent Criminals:



  Chapter One: Hot Black Bush

  Chapter Two: Roisin Has Enthusiasms

  Chapter Three: The Green Door, or Everybody Likes Lancaster

  Chapter Four: Women on and Off the Wall

  Chapter Five: Cape Canaveral on York Street

  Chapter Six: Roisin’s Furniture Goes Funny

  Chapter Seven: Constance Has Inner Beauty; About Farrell We Are Not So Sure

  Chapter Eight: Big Presents Come in Small Packages

  Chapter Nine: As You Are in Pieces, So Shall Your Cities Fragment

  Chapter Ten: The Vector and the Corkscrew

  Chapter Eleven: The MacBride Principles

  Chapter Twelve: Americans Have Good Teeth

  Chapter Thirteen: Checked Luggage, or The Long Fuck

  Chapter Fourteen: Negaphobia, and Why Farrell Doesn’t Do Windows

  Chapter Fifteen: Ireland, and Other Hospitals

  Chapter Sixteen: The House in Castlecaulfield

  Chapter Seventeen: The Fall of the House in Castlecaulfield

  Chapter Eighteen: Form Over Weight

  Chapter Nineteen: Notice-Notice

  Chapter Twenty: Harder-Harder, More-More, Worse-Worse: Estrin Turns Into a Lamppost

  Chapter Twenty-One: Chemical Irritation

  Chapter Twenty-Two: The Saint of Glengormley

  Chapter Twenty-Three: What Is So Bloodcurdling About a Swallow in Your Kitchen?

  Epilogue: Boredom as Moral Achievement

  Glossary of Troublesome Terms

  About the Book: Teatime in London: Why I Spurn My Gerry Adams Mugs for the Cups From the John Harvard Library

  About the Author

  Also by Lionel Shriver

  About the Publisher

  chapter one

  Hot Black Bush

  Between them, pure alcohol coiled from the turned-back lid; the air curled with its distortion. Vaporous, the face stretched longer and thinner than the pillar it began. The shimmer off the vat worried his expression, tortured his eyebrows in the heat, further emphasizing a figure already overdrawn: too wild, too skinny, too tall.

  As she stood on tiptoe to lean over the wooden tub, on the other side the tall man saw only the dark tremble of a girl’s unruly hair. He wondered at letting children tour a distillery. Then, why shouldn’t they be confirmed early, sip at the chalice—Bushmills was the real Church of Ireland, after all. Later, he would catch sight of her down the walk toward bottling and not recognize the grown woman in black leather bouncing the red motorcycle helmet against her thigh. Though she was barely over five feet, at any distance her slight proportions created the optical illusion that she was not small, rather, farther away.

  The man did not need to clutch the rim, but leaned at the waist to inhale. When the girl looked up he saw she was not ten or twelve but at least twenty. Their glances met; both took a deep breath. The man reared back again, snapping upright; the woman went flat on her feet. Tears rose and noses began to run. The fumes went straight to the center, acupuncture. The staves of the cavernous room warped cozily around them. The man could no longer remember what had so concerned him moments ago; for the first time in months he felt his face relax. Across the tub, she watched the lines lift from him and decided he was not fifty, as she’d first thought, but thirty-two or -three. In fact, if she’d asked him just then how old he was, he might have claimed yes, he was thirty-three, because the last ten years had been trying and he could not remember anything trying while breathing over a washback with this pretty girl. Christ, he missed whiskey.

  “Better than shots,” she admitted. “This is my second time through.”

  The alcohol evaporated from his head. He recalled what he’d been sorting out, and returned to one and a half million paupers would never get a full vote in the EEC. Her twang was unmistakable: bloody hell, she was American.

  Their group had moved on; the two treated themselves to one more inhalation of the wort, which roiled between them like whipped cream gone off, Guinness on a stove. Its surface churned and kneaded into itself, a little sickening, too brown. The American let down the wooden flat regretfully. “We’ll be missed.” As her boots echoed down the washbacks, she passed a beefy man at the door.

  “Farrell, lad. A wee five-minute tour and you’re away.”

  Farrell. She remembered his name.

  Farrell waited, not wanting to walk with her. He’d no desire to violate the intimacy of their brief debauch with the disappointing whine of an American tourist. His head cleared, the last two minutes had encapsulated his life: the giddy rise and fall of it. Excessive indulgence to excessive discipline, and that was substances, though women the same—the clasping of hands over tables, the grappling in the back of taxis, the sw
eaty riot in the hotel, so quickly giving way to veiled excuses, impossible schedules, the dread cold quiet of a woman’s phone unrung. Increasingly, he had an eye outside the abandon, the desperate swings; all he could see was pattern, and in this way nothing changed. It was harder and harder to perceive anything at all as actually happening.

  Estrin Lancaster was not the only American on this tour; the piping comments of just the couple she longed to escape had led her to bottling. The two were Northeasterners, though Estrin could no longer decode their accents into states. Abroad the better part of ten years now, Estrin was growing stupid about her own country, and had to admit that while she plowed her Moto Guzzi over the Middle East she hadn’t a clue what was going on in Pennsylvania; and that this, like any ignorance, was no claim to fame. Rather, she’d made a trade-off, a real important trade-off, because there was a way you could know the place you were born that you never got a crack at anywhere else, and Estrin didn’t have that chance anymore.

  These years her access to U.S. news had been spotty, and lately, when Americans glommed onto her—a national characteristic—she didn’t get their jokes. She was currently following the Birmingham Six appeal, with all the unlikelihood of a British reversal—the more miserable the evidence on which the six Irishmen were convicted, the more certain the decision would remain, for didn’t people defend their weakest opinions with the most violence? Yet Estrin barely skimmed articles about presidential primaries in the States. She knew she was lost when in her Irish Times she no longer understood Doonesbury. The detachment had become disquieting.