An Embarrassment of Riches

An Embarrassment of Riches by Gerald Hansen (2007). iUniverse, 261 pages.

This is a rare privilege. For the first time, I’m going to review a book written by someone I know. Someone I have known, in fact, for over 30 years.

Gerald Hansen and I were friends during our tween years when we both lived on an military base (Patch Barracks) in Stuttgart, Germany during the 1970’s. We hung around together, shared books, explored underground tunnels and old attics, and watched a ton of movies at the small base movie theater. In fact, as I recall, Gerald’s father actually worked at the movie theater – although we never got free tickets or anything like that.

Something else we did was collaborate on plays, comics, and stories. Most of these were extremely derivative, spoof-type things, about what you’d expect from a couple of 14-year-olds passing time in a country not their own. I remember “Hush, Hush, Sweet Margaret”, which was basically a much sillier and more violent version of Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte. There were also comic books where we re-created our teachers as various comic book heroes and villains. For example, Ms. Marvel was a popular comic at that time, so we created a “Ms. Nazi” version starting our German teacher. Politically correct we were not. But hey, we were teenagers, and it was the 70’s.

I was going to be a famous filmmaker, Gerald was going to be a famous writer. Now, I work in computer software and web development, and Gerald is a high-class teacher at a fancy New York City private school. But, as it turns out, Gerald never gave up the writing dream… and here I am, many years later, finally reading and reviewing Gerald’s first novel.

Before reading it, I had privately decided that if I didn’t like it, I just wasn’t going to say anything. There was no way I was going to give my oldest friend a bad review.

As it turns out, I indeed have something to say, because this is a flat-out great book. Am I biased? Well, probably somewhat. But I could not stop reading for the last 50 pages, and as I finished the novel on a plane, I could not hear the jet engines, or the other passengers, and I passed up extra chips and soda because I did not want to be bothered. I just had to see how the communion turned out.

I haven’t read a novel like this in quite a while. An Embarrassment of Riches is a true black comedy, filled with richly-drawn characters that are both larger than life and small minded at the same time. The novel takes place entirely in the city of Derry (or Londonderry, depending on your religion – you’ll understand that statement after reading the book), Ireland, right around the turn of this century. It concerns the intertwined families of two sisters, one of whom, having recently won the Irish National Lottery, is relatively well off – and the other, who is poor, uneducated, and nasty.

The style reminds me very much of the works of Hubert Selby, particularly Last Exit to Brooklyn and Requiem for a Dream. With perhaps a bit of James Joyce thrown in there as well. Hansen writes much of the character’s dialogue directly in the dialect of the area, using a technique honed by Mark Twain in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. As such, it can sometimes be difficult to understand exactly what is being said… but one of the characters is conveniently married to an American, who, near the beginning of the novel, shares his “Derry Speak Dictionary”. I found myself referring often to this two-page spread of Irish slang during the course of the book.

In fact, the city of Derry itself is probably the most important character in the book. It is almost as much a part of this book as Los Angeles is a part of Raymond Chandler’s works. Jed Barnett, the sole American in the book, sums it up well:

“You dragged me off to this godforsaken hellhole where I can barely understand what anybody says, where the sun shines three days a year, where the city center is crawling with thugs wielding broken bottles after dark so I have to do all my drinking during the day, where the dollar’s so weak against the pound my retirement checks disappear before they’re even cashed.”

LIke most great literary comedies (A Confederacy of Dunces, anyone?), the real charm and power lies in the interactions between rich, larger than life characters. An Embarrassment of Riches is no exception:

Dramatis Personae

Ursula Barnett – Mid-fifties Irish woman, married to an American Navy man, both now retired and living in Londonderry, Ireland. She recently won 1 million pounds in the Irish lottery. She has a hot temper, but of all her family, she’s probably the kindest person. She has no idea how truly vile and evil most of her family really is.

Fionnnuala Flood – Ursula’s sister. A conniving, trashy, filthy woman who thinks only of how she can lie, cheat, and steal her way through life. She’s convinced her sister owes her and her entire brood a free ride, and she’s determined to do anything she can to get it. Her children are playthings in her theater of cruelty.

Jed Barnett – Ursula’s “Yank” husband, a retired Navy man who has reluctantly settled with his wife in Londonderry. He hates the city, hates the country, and wants nothing except to leave it and return home to Wisconsin. Only his love for Ursula keeps him here, a prisoner in a place he wants no part of. Unbeknownst to Ursula, he has long ago gambled away all their lottery winnings.

Dymphna Flood – The 18-year-old daughter of Fionnuala. Pregnant out of wedlock (and by a Protestant no less!), working at a low-end job just enough to keep the welfare office happy, Dymphna is just as scheming as her mother, but only half as intelligent.

Paidrag Flood – Fionnuala’s 10-year-old son. Destined to become a drug dealer like his brothers, Paidrag has already learned the ins and outs of making petrol bombs to lob at his relatives, confident that the police will never arrest a tiny boy like himself.

Siofra Flood – 8-year-old daugher of Fionnuala, who is studying for her communion under her Aunt Ursula’ tutelage. However, she’s in it only for the fashion accessories: Siofra dreams of having the perfect dress to impress her friends with. And she’s going to gather the money by assisting her brother in selling his “disco sweeties”, Ecstasy. Yes, she is an eight-year-old drug dealer.

Eoin Flood – 17-year-old son of Fionnuala, a drug dealer. He’s the current apple of his mother’s eye, since he’s the main breadwinner in the family at the moment.

And these are just the main characters. There’s also the addled Grandmother, the boss at the horrible little retail shop, the estranged sister from Hawaii, the trashy co-workers, the drunken husband, and a passel of ex-IRA goons to boot. Set this in a run-down, burnt-out Irish city that all the good parts of the 20th century seem to have passed by, mix with tons of ridiculous religious prejudice and greed, shake, stir and serve. The result is An Embarrassment of Riches.

The last 50 pages of this book are classic, I can’t-stop-reading literature. Yes, Siofra does get her communion. And yes, all the disparate threads of plot and character do all come together at the end. And yes, all the questions about Ursula’s past with the IRA are answered truthfully, if surprisingly. And yes, you will laugh until your sides hurt.

Sure I’m biased. So what – I know a good book when I read it. And this… is a very, very good book. I hope never in my life to find myself in Londonderry, Ireland – with the sole exception of when I re-read this novel. Click on over to Amazon, demand a copy from your local bookseller, download it to your e-book reader, whichever way works for you – but whatever way you do it, read An Embarrassment of Riches.

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