October 2004

Michael Schaub

fiction

Mr. Dynamite by Meredith Brosnan

For anyone who cares about American music, there's only one Mr. Dynamite, and that's James Brown. Iggy Pop made a bid to claim the title with a song of the same name, but it never really stuck -- if you're going to take on the Godfather of Soul, you need to either be an unquestioned legend in your own right; or have serious, unshakable delusions of grandeur.

We can let the music critics debate where Mr. Pop falls on that spectrum, but it's safe to say that Jarleth Prendergast, the narrator and drunken protagonist of Meredith Brosnan's debut novel, belongs squarely in the latter category. Jarleth indisputably has some of James' manic energy and bug-eyed enthusiasm, but he doesn't sell out theaters, doesn't silence crowds of people with one yelped syllable. He's a feckless, frustrated Claymation filmmaker who drifts in and out of homelessness, endearing and alienating a string of women, and dedicating his energy mainly to pursuing the next bottle of Jagermeister and the next bag of pot. Jarleth has a spark, it's true, but he's not the godfather of anything, not the hardest-working man in any kind of business.

Jarleth might not sound like the type of character great novels are based upon, but against all odds, Mr. Dynamite ticks with unrelenting punk energy and surprising grace. Set in various parts of New York sometime in the not-too-distant past, Brosnan's novel follows Irish expatriate Jarleth (who calls himself, seemingly with a dose of irony, "Trendy Prendy") as he works a pointless job at a copy shop and hopes for an inheritance from his recently deceased aunt, which he plans to use to finance his flagging -- or nonexistent -- animation career. Brosnan is at his funniest when Jarleth describes his short films, most of which have yet to actually be produced. Absurd titles and plotlines aside, Brosnan treats Jarleth's ambitions and dreams with real compassion and without mockery. (Well, without much mockery.) In the hands of a lesser writer, it could have come across as petty, sniping, and condescending. There's not a trace of any of this in Mr. Dynamite.

A manically energetic character like Jarleth practically demands a stream-of-consciousness treatment, which would normally be bad news for a first-time novelist -- it's a notoriously difficult technique to pull off, and bad stream-of-consciousness can be much worse than bad. But not only does Brosnan succeed in crafting a complex yet readable narrative, he never once falters.

And that consistency becomes a real asset when the plot turns darker. As Jarleth's life begins to unravel, he becomes obsessed with exacting revenge on the man he believes hurt the woman he loved the most. Oddly, the book becomes funnier as Jarleth becomes more unhinged, stalking his would-be victim through tony Manhattan parties and theaters, with a pistol named "McSplatter" in tow. But despite what the jacket quotes say, Mr. Dynamite isn't a particularly funny book, at least not in the conventional sense of the word. That's not an insult by any means; it's just that the tragedy inherent in this book is too palpable to ignore, and it's hard to laugh at loud at Jarleth's deluded fecklessness when he's homeless and fucked up and carrying a gun around the streets of New York.

The weakest part of Mr. Dynamite might be its ending, although it's possible that Brosnan chose to end his book the only way he could. And it's not a disappointment, really, except in the sense that the closing of any great book (or album, or movie) is disappointing. Brosnan does get a bit sentimental, though it's a messy, drunken, stoned kind of emotion; a valediction forbidding mourning for the punk rock set. The close of the book -- really, the whole book itself -- challenges you to care about a character who defies care. It's hard to read Mr. Dynamite and not feel for its lost souls, the ones who would rather you care about anything else but them. For that reason alone, Meredith Brosnan deserves credit for writing one of the angriest, most absorbing, and most beautiful books of the year.

Mr. Dynamite by Meredith Brosnan
Dalkey Archive Press
ISBN: 1564783537
187 Pages