Mickey Collins is an extraordinary novel in which dark and unrelenting characters populate a remorselessly unpleasant environment, a world that is so far beyond the experience of most readers I’m sure many will think it a gross distortion of reality — but it’s a wholly achieved world, all of its parts fit with each other and, given the apparent absence of any morality whatever, Kevin Forde has given us a remarkably human and humane book.
I felt not the slightest affection for our protagonist, Mickey, although that is not a prerequisite here. I hear many readers form a passionate bond with the character, but I’ve run across the type too many times and would give him a wide berth out in the world. As I read on, however, I found myself willing him to prevail, urging him onward to the transfiguring insight that would allow him to redeem himself, transform his world. Some lives, though, are beyond redemption, and it’s to this book’s credit that we get to witness the inevitable crash and burn of our titular “hero”.
In France, the phrase nostalgie de la boue is used for certain middle class fiction set in a sordid world populated by criminals and lowlifes in a way that allows the reader to wallow in the unpleasant and unthreatening whilst knowing all the while that they will be retrieved before the end by a principal character rising above herself or himself into the golden light of respectability. I suppose nostalgia for the muck would be a fair translation. It’s such a recognised cliché that experienced readers, given a harsh world and unsavoury characters, are programmed to expect the redemptive moment or episode.
The two great strengths of this book, therefore, are these: that the milieu is wholly convincing, and that Mickey does not experience redemption, that he goes on down into the dark never understanding what his life has been. Which means, of course, most readers will make their way through this work feeling deeply uncomfortable — they are constantly expecting what they will never be given. I say this with confidence because I experienced it myself. I had to force myself onward — until I understood that what was holding me back was not so much the story, or the way it was unfolding, or even the unredeemed nastiness of the characters, but my own expectation of redemption (for Mickey at least) and my building resentment that this redemptive moment was being withheld. Finally, of course, I understood that there would be no redemption — and once I had accepted this, I was able to relax and read on to the end, appreciating the tale for what it is, not being held back by trauma we take on from the presence of the kind of criminal milieu portrayed here.
I am simplifying things here — the book is more nuanced than that. The Guards, for example, are more forbearing and gentle with Mickey than he might well have expected, even if he doesn’t quite understand that they are being kind to him. And all through the book there are instances, delicately written and almost unnoticed, of instinctive human goodness in the exchanges between characters. Were it not so, we would have caricatures and not characters.
I cannot think of any other author who has written so convincingly of such a feral human environment as Kevin Forde has. Our judges, Guards and social workers struggle with it every day, some of us have been victims of it, most of us fear and shun it, some even believe it can be fixed, but nobody until now has written their way into that world with such power and conviction. The problem, of course, is readers need to be prepared to overcome their deep aversion to that world, their fear of it and their own socialised instinct to wish that world away.
I remind myself that Roddy Doyle had to publish The Commitments himself. I remind myself of the middle class writer of rural background who informed me with great conviction that Roddy was writing offensive caricatures, since she herself had Northside friends and none of them spoke “like those people.” Oblivious to the fact that Roddy is himself one of “those people.” I suspect that Mickey will also run into that resistance, by which I mean that though his Cork accent rings through the book with complete conviction, his authenticity will be denied by those who fear being identified with him as fellow citizens. Sentence after sentence I could hear the deep music of the city I grew up in, and if that were the book’s only achievement it would be a signal achievement.
By now you will have gathered that I am deeply impressed by this book. Would I have picked it up in a bookshop, read a few pages and immediately bought it? Honestly, I’m not sure. On a certain kind of day, yes, a day when I was feeling strong in myself, free of worries about my own work in hand, free of worries about the world, the kind of day when in a detached sort of way you feel able for anything. On the other hand, if I had read a good review of the book but was feeling not able for much, I’d have bought it and put it aside for when I would be feeling stronger in myself. Am I making sense here, I wonder? I remember, as a young student, knowing that it would be a few years before I was able, psychologically I mean, for Kafka. The same with some poets I put off reading until I could feel I was able to understand them — had lived enough in the world to understand them. In this situation, had Mickey been published by a publisher able to command serious reviews from serious and competent reviewers, I think the book would have reached a good readership. Failing that, all that can be hoped for is word of mouth, which is an uncertain business at best.
This is a very fine book. For what it’s worth, I recommend it to readers and I recommend those readers speak of it to others. The issues highlighted within these pages are cyclical. Before issues herein can be addressed, they need first of all to be seen. So read this, bear witness. Tell others.
— Theo Dorgan
Preface by the Author
Most of us have been raised to believe that the road to a happy life is paved with pleasure, and that the pursuit of pleasure is the path to fulfilment… The truth is that happiness is not found in the avoidance of pain, but in the willingness to face and accept our pain.
– Dr. Russ Harris, The Happiness Trap
Many readers exhibit a kind of allergic reaction when presented with the character Mickey Collins. He is wild. He is dangerous (we believe). He is likely high on something or other, has no respect for private property and would rob the eyeball out of your head given half a chance. Why would anyone want to listen to what he has to say? Why should he be given time of day in a book of all things when he is barely literate anyway? He thinks he’s funny, but he’s so desperately wrong and clueless about everything it’s pointless to even try telling him anything. Indulge him and he will engage you in a chaotic conversation of guff and rubbish that only serves to prove your point: Mickey is not worthy of attention.
This voice, this character is not something we would deliberately choose to allow infiltrate our minds. We want to be free of all the Mickey Collinses. We see enough of them everywhere. They cannot be tamed. They will not learn to live in civil society, so why would anyone choose to allow themselves occupy time or space inside the mind of such an individual? Better to lock them up and throw away the key at the earliest opportunity so we can forget about them forever!
Well, how is that working out for you? Has the number of serious incidences coming from criminal environments such as the one Mickey Collins inhabits reduced anytime recently? Has your Fear of this character lessened over the years? Do you believe that a petty criminal like Mickey Collins disappears when he enters the Justice, Care and Education System?
People are traumatised (and with good cause) by the very idea of a character such as Mickey Collins invading our spaces, doing drugs on the street, climbing through the kitchen-window while we sleep, submitting to every petty distraction or whim that takes his fancy. We have every Right to escape this stain that besmirches us all.
Yet, I contend we react to this trauma in a manner that helps build the very problem that traumatises us so much: We ignore it. We run from it. We let rules-based Authorities and Institutions handle it. We do not want to know.
There are many well-intentioned, learned people within these Institutions who seek to do what’s best within their remit (or even beyond, in many cases), but ultimately the most important thing becomes not so much doing the right thing, as being seen to be doing the right thing. Cover your back. Protect the Institution. Document everything. Don’t show too much affection or softness or it will come back to bite you! (I say this with Respect and not with any axe to grind with any institution – we see in this book how weaknesses and holes can easily be used to twist events in every which way.)
This is the environment and circumstance in which many deprived, underprivileged or traumatised children are introduced to the adult world. Certainly it doesn’t serve too badly for every child, but there is a significant proportion of kids who will never find what they need at home, nor from a System designed to protect itself first and foremost.
This book does not purport to have answers, nor does it wag any fingers at bad behaviour or practices. It simply requests that we stop and listen. Just once. Think of how often we listen to tales from Psychopathic “Heroes” who get to write History and define “Adventure”. It barely matters the trail of destruction frequently left in their wake – what is important is that they GET THINGS DONE!
Mickey Collins on the other hand, to me is a more realistic, yet no-less-adventurous tale of Trauma that comes from living with Trauma – from growing up, knowing nothing but Trauma. Trauma to Mickey is like water to a fish. It stimulates him, propels him onward. His Trauma emanates, certainly, originally from his family environment, but we must ask the question: Is this family the chicken or the egg? Was Mickey Collins a write-off from the start, coming from this environment as he does? His siblings’ more positive outcomes would suggest otherwise. Perhaps he was just a “bad egg”? It’s clear though that Mickey doesn’t deliberately do bad things, but rather he has little concept of Right and Wrong. Most often, bad things happen around Mickey and he lacks the sense to avoid it. Or welcomes it for the wrong reasons.
Society too is addicted to Trauma in the same way. We look up to Power and seek, at any cost, to prop-up the Power-Hungry Leader (or System) who we believe oversees our wellbeing. Our fate, we understand, is interlinked with this Being, be he Hero, Villain, Psychopath or Sympathetic Parent figure. It’s all we got and we’re going to prop up that mother no matter what!
We worship this Power and live in its wake, feeding off its Success, suffering the consequences of any failures, paying for its greed. Right and Wrong have little or nothing to do with it. It’s all Relative anyway, isn’t it?
So we worship the cause of the Trauma and punish the Collateral Damage that frequently comes back to traumatise us in ways that has us build structures and defences and walls that prop-up and strengthen the true cause, but sends ripples of smaller traumas throughout the land that require attention we entrust to those-who-must-be-propped-up.
It sounds farcical. And it is. It’s so warped, it’s hilarious to my mind. We are all complicit, but what can we do? We could try something different, but we won’t. Instead we’ll continue trying the same thing over and over (bigger and harder and more) just to see if there will be a different outcome next time. Chicken and Egg.
One final word: There is no “making light” or brushing aside of terrible actions or events here, except Mickey’s reaction to the trauma he himself experiences, I feel is somewhat inspirational and can in fact be very funny if we allow the laughter in. Mickey is continually knocked sideways or backwards by events beyond his control, but taking it in his stride, he ducks and dives, has a titter as though he is enjoying the ride, then gets on with it. This laughter from him is often at the wrong time or at something we might recognise as clearly NOT FUNNY. I believe this is his coping mechanism. It’s what has kept him going. We hopefully do not share too closely in Mickey’s sense of humour, but this ability to laugh at trauma – laugh louder and harder in an almost-dare-like manner – is what gives him strength and can strengthen any of us at such times in our own way.
Mickey is not the most dangerous or detrimental character featured in this tale by any stretch, yet he is possibly the most-despised in society. I do fervently believe we all have a lot to learn from Mickey Collins. We may resent the teacher, but I would urge readers to reserve judgement until the end. Observe. Just listen. I know I’ve learnt a lot from observing Mickey and it’s not at all bad.
— Kevin Forde