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Declan Carmody’s Burning Ambition by Connla Stokes

Declan Carmody’s Burning Ambition by Connla Stokes

Fiction, Vol. 6.4, Dec. 2012

For days Declan had been fantasising about out-jesting Victor Hanratty—his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend and one of the best stand-up comedy acts in the Republic of Ireland—in a duel of wit and whimsicality at a dinner party in Fionnuala Gallagher’s colossal family-owned flat on Waterloo Road. “Stand-ups aren’t so funny when they’re sitting down,” he’d told his best pals, Rory, Evan, and Daragh with an air of bravado over a number of pints in one of the only untrendy bars left on Camden Street. “You’ll see,” he’d said, still grinning as he slurped the head off his Guinness. “I’ll show that fucker.”

To complete his mission, Declan had tactics both creative—he hoped to steer the conversation toward certain subjects for which he had tried and tested quality banter—and disruptive: “I’m going to bring Olivia O’Dwyer with me.”

“So let me get this straight: You’re going to a dinner party with your ex-girlfriend, your ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend, and your ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend’s ex girlfriend?” said Rory, Evan, or Daragh.

“Yes!” said Declan with his eyes all a’twinkle. “What could possibly go wrong?”

*

Here are some things that went wrong: i) Olivia being overjoyed to see her old flame at the party, so much so she opted to sit down in the middle of the table right beside Anna (Declan would later ponder why women like to pretend to be best friends with those they most envy); ii) Loose seating arrangements that meant the comedian ended up at the other end of a long makeshift dining table, thus confounding Declan’s vision of a sophisticated face-to-face verbal joust over cheese and crackers in front of a titillated audience (with an elegant victory for the underdog and new crowd favourite); iii) Declan quaffing at least two bottles of mediocre plonk and lighting a cigarette the wrong way round while four sheets to the wind; and iv) Declan’s drink-addled body keeling over into a hedge—the last noteworthy act of a wretched evening.

*

During the dinner Declan had tried to engage the dullards around him in an attempt to stop them from listening to (and fawning over) the plat du jour (a.k.a. the comedian). But his opening conversational gambit—”True or false: the best shag you’ll ever have is the shag you never had…”—failed to generate back-and-forth banter even with a clarification: “You know, like, someone you really want to shag but you never will, so you think about having amazing sex with them all the time…”

Declan bristled as everyone else—a baker’s dozen of 30-something-year olds, all from south Dublin—sat gawping and guffawing at the comedian, who was only too happy to reel off a string of self-aggrandising anecdotes. Fionnuala Gallagher was in supreme arse-kissing mode, invariably letting the room know what she thought about everything the comedian said:, “Oh my god! That’s absolutely hilarious!“, or “Oh my god! That’s absolutely fucking hilarious!” At one point, she even shushed Declan—he was still trying to generate some alternate chatter at his end of the table by comparing red wine hangovers to white wine hangovers, one of his established topics for witty repartee—as the comedian waffled on about a recent night out in Camden. He didn’t actually say, “It was just little old me, Noel Fielding and his harem of male and female admirers and that other guy from The Mighty Boosh…” but Declan would later claim that he did when bemoaning the occasion over pints with Rory, Daragh, or Evan in one of the pubs in Ranelagh, where they often came for quiet mid-week pints that led to accidental piss-ups.

With no one to talk to at the dinner party, Declan had started texting himself lines like, “a posse of sycophantic apostles huddled around their dear leader…” He liked the look of that overwrought and pretentious sentence, which he could picture on a page printed in a refined font and bound within a beautifully designed, critically acclaimed book, which would come replete with admiring blurb like, “another triumph by Declan Carmody, the new enfant terrible of Ireland’s literary world.” After that got boring, somewhere between his fifth or sixth extra-large glass of wine, Declan started rolling his eyes and groaning very audibly at some of the comedian’s more corny lines in the hope that his negative energy might influence others, but all to no avail. Only a mass craving for nicotine could slow the comedian’s momentum and soon even the non-smokers joined the smokers, who had stopped bothering to come back in from the garden between cigarettes. Before stumbling out, Declan poured himself a vast measure of a rather excellent (or perhaps just rather expensive) 18-year-old scotch that ultimately persuaded his mind to briefly disengage governance of his body, which toppled over into a hedge. As he struggled up into a semi-vertical stance, the comedian shouted, “Taxi!”, which triggered an eruption of guffaws, and just in case anyone hadn’t noticed, Fionnuala Gallagher bellowed out, “Oh my god, Declan’s absolutely fucking shitfaced! Someone get him out of here before he destroys my auntie’s rhododendrons!”

*

Olivia was kind enough to leave with Declan but she made a point of telling the taxi driver there would be two stops, very clearly. Along the way, Declan said, “God, it was like he was taking the room for a test run with all his new material wasn’t it? We should be charging him a fucking consultancy fee for listening to that shit.”

“Wow…”

“Wow what?”

“You really don’t like him, do you?”

“…”

“Is it because he’s…”

*

…making the beast with two backs in Declan’s old bedroom with Anna, a woman that Declan had pictured rearing five bouncing babies and growing old with? Ah, no, no, no—it wasn’t that. Well not entirely. There was some history here besides that particular pickle, and geography, too. The comedian and Declan were two distinct opposites running in similar circles around the south Dublin middle class quadrant, however, Declan hailed from Balbriggan on the far north side of the city, only moving to south of the river when he enrolled at University College Dublin, where he dreamed of writing fiction while reading history and philosophy (with commendable dispassion) before exiting the system with a mediocre degree and limited prospects to blossom as a professional in any field whatsoever. He drifted into listlessness for a year or two, working in a book shop and an art gallery, where employees assumed an air of pretension as if they were literary or artistic by virtue of the surroundings. He picked up work as a proof-reader at a free events guide and persuaded the editor to let him write reviews—he immediately started calling himself a critic. The guide soon folded but he managed to get a job with an established magazine, which paid a smidgen more for his cynical and pithy reviews until it went online only and asked if he’d write for free. He went freelance, writing album and film reviews for a Sunday paper and a monthly music magazine, but drew most of his income from compiling tedious surveys for a market research firm called Tomorrow’s Trend. During this period of his life, he went out a lot and drank a lot and when drunk he talked a lot about how he would one day write a most startling, profound, and original book. When people asked what the book would be about, he’d say, an author should never talk about what they want to write about, but by the end of the night he’d have offered up a detailed synopsis of the whole shebang to at least one half-interested person.

*

The comedian was a lifelong southsider and a Trinity graduate; during university life he had an enormous scarf, a battered old granddad bicycle with a ding-a-ling bell, a suit jacket and non-prescription spectacles, both worn with slight irony, a style we could call proto-hipster, if you like. He studied history and philosophy, too, but he found time between lectures to write several humorous short stories (published stories, we should add) and perform several stand-up shows every year (each time with completely new material). Despite numerous career choices and options for post-graduate studies, he became a professional comedian and continued to write humorous “educational” short stories for teenagers, which The Irish Times literary editor would compare to Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics, a book which incidentally Declan worshipped and chose to read the night before his finals rather than anything about, or by, Immanuel Kant (Rory, Daragh, and Evan’s joke for the rest of the summer was putting on a Cockney accent and saying to Declan: “Oi! Don’t forget Immanuel—you stupid fucking Kant!” It never got old for them).

*

Post-university, Declan and the comedian’s respective circles interweaved more and more over the years. Their first meeting of consequence would be in a bar on Wexford Street for the birthday of a mutual female friend—the sort of outgoing type who had a thousand and one friends and shrieked each time one of them walked in the door. Anna was also there and even though they’d broken up for the fifth or sixth time, Declan was ignoring her in the hope that he’d only get talking to her when she was drunk enough to agree to go home with him come the end of the night. He ended up in the same cluster of smokers and smokers’ pals as the comedian outside. Declan would have harboured a natural suspicion—along with plenty of others in a country with a penchant for Tall Poppy Syndrome—that the comedian (no longer an emerging act but a famous stand-up and all round professional funny-man) had acquired an inflated ego of late. But, in person, he appeared mellow enough, adding to, not dominating, the banter and laughing (with what seemed like a genuine air) at other people’s jokes. Later on a mutual friend would introduce them. “Oh, sure I know Deco,” the comedian would reply. “I can call you Deco, can’t I?”

“Yes, you can but I’m not encouraging it.”

“That’s also short for decoration by the way. Or is it just short for décor?”

Declan laughed at the time, mainly because everyone else was laughing, but two hours later, after he spotted the comedian clambering into a taxi with Anna, he could be found leaning against the bar or a wall, telling Rory, Evan, or Daragh, and a fair few random bystanders, that the comedian was a total fucking knob jockey.

*

On a stuffy summer’s night Declan presented a case against the comedian in the International Bar on Wicklow Street to a bunch of writers and designers from a music magazine, where he’d picked up a job as a staff writer, mostly charged with writing reviews of films, albums, and live shows, excuse enough to refer to himself on his blog as a “critic at large.” Everyone (else) seemed to think Victor Hanratty was the best young comedian in the country. Fired up by half-a-dozen pints, Declan attempted a Twelve Angry Men-style turnaround, which failed to gain traction and fizzled like a half-remembered dream. Down but not out, that night Declan tried to structure his incoherent arguments into an opinion piece on young Irish comics (with token mentions of two other stand-ups) and e-mailed it to the magazine editor at 3 a.m.

*

Passing a groggy Declan in the door of the staff kitchenette around noon the next day, the editor said, “Declan, have to ask, what the fuck did Victor Hanratty ever do to you?” Declan didn’t open his mouth, mainly because he still stank of whiskey and beer but there was no need for Eoghan, the chief sub-editor and a smarmy little prick, to answer the rhetorical question by saying, “Didn’t you know? He’s riding Deco’s ex.”

“Well, I’m sorry to hear that me aul’ flower,” said the editor with a sympathetic grimace. “But revenge is a dish best served somewhere far away from here on the blogosphere and please don’t write and submit stories after a night in the fucking boozer.”

*

Declan mulled over putting the piece on his blog, where he posted press clippings and viral distractions, but by now he knew the comedian was seeing Anna and he realised he’d come across as an embittered, scorned lover. In the end, he mentioned that he’d been to a recent show of Victor Hanratty’s, and described his humour as “very south Dublin,” asking whether anyone would laugh on the other side of the River Liffey. His closing tuppence: he thought no one would.

*

A few weeks later Declan’s brother Brian was delighted to tell the whole Carmody family back in Balbriggan, for someone’s birthday, how he’d been to see the comedian, who’d brought up Declan’s blogged comments during the gig—”Sad bastard probably googles himself every night,” Declan sniped—and the gist of his riposte went something like this: “So, I was recently described as very south Dublin on a blog. That, my friends, was intended as a smack-down. But I embrace this tag. I underline my address in the bank to emphasise my location. “Donnybrook, Dublin Fucking 4″— and then I high five the bank clerk even though he was born in Tubbercurry and commutes from Leixlip. I’m getting T-shirts and headbands made that will read: D4 to the Core.”

“Oh…” continued Brian, “he also said, This same critic‘—he actually made the quotation marks with his fingers—also questioned whether my comedy would ‘stand up’ on ‘the other side of the Liffey,’ so I’m taking a leaf from Eddie Izzard’s book“—do you remember Eddie Izzard did stand-up shows in French in France?—and doing a series of gigs in Cabra, Finglas and Ballymun, speaking only in a thick north-side accent…”

This idea would crystallize into a feature-length documentary, called Victor Hanratty – On the Other Side of Town. The show featured, in his words, “footage from four shows by one of the most south Dublin comedians in the history of the world in some of the most north Dublin destinations on planet earth.” The documentary earned critical and public acclaim and would be lauded by sociologists and a host of media boffins as an important piece of social commentary. Nobody needed to remind Declan that he inadvertently helped to propel the comedian to the next level of fame in Ireland but Brian did anyway, regularly and with considerable relish.

*

A year or so later, the comedian—fresh off stage and most probably high on cocaine—swaggered into a house party somewhere between South Circular Road and Harold’s Cross on Good Friday close to midnight, wide-eyed and sweaty. When he spotted Declan leaning against the fridge, he said: “You’re one of those guys who’s always in the kitchen at parties, aren’t you?” Rory, Evan, or Daragh chimed in, “You actually are always in the kitchen.” Declan blustered something about the importance of maintaining a high beer-to-fridge ratio and his utilitarian spirit. The comedian, without missing a beat, replied, “Such selflessness in the line of duty will not go unnoticed, Deco. When I’m outside snorting coke or fucking some bird in the toilet, there’ll be a tiny corner of my mind whispering, keep doing what you’re doing Big Fella,’ Deco has got your back covered. The beer-to-fridge ratio is sufficiently high.”

*

Later in the evening, Declan watched the comedian work the room. He muttered to Rory, Evan, or Daragh, how comedians crave constant attention and affirmation. “I read about it, or saw a documentary, I can’t remember which, but basically they are on a high after a show, and can’t stand being off stage,” said Declan.

He would suggest that comedians are basically dysfunctional egomaniacs who make a dubious living off their personality disorders. Rory, Evan, or Daragh would stare back at Declan and say, “Jesus—get over it would you?

“Get over what?!”

“This petty hatred of Victor Hanratty…”

“I don’t hate him.”

“Oh, yes you do…”

“I fucking don’t.”

Oh, yes, he fucking did.

*

This brings us back up to the time that Declan attended the dinner party at Fionnuala Gallagher’s house where there was one more noteworthy incident, which occurred a few minutes before Declan fell over into a hedge, and a few minutes after he had lit a cigarette the wrong way round.

Spotting a belated opportunity, Declan had sidled up to the comedian and said, “Hey Victor—is this like a busman’s holiday for you?” The comedian grinned, visibly running that obvious curveball over in his mind, or perhaps gauging Declan’s level of drunkenness.

“You know, like, a comedian telling jokes…on a night off,” Declan clarified.

“Oh yeah, I know what you mean,” the comedian said before assuming the air of a pseudo-intellectual on a late night arts show and adding: “Here’s the eternal question—is humour a muscle that needs daily exercise lest it waste away or a finite substance that a comedian needs to conserve…”

“Like, male porn stars,” said Declan. “I always thought—I bet they don’t go out after a hard day’s work and try and get laid or try to pick up people up on holiday. Their magnificent knobs need a break, too.”

The comedian offered up a tepid smile, which seemed more like a courtesy, and said, “I meant to ask, Deco—are you still writing your blog? You had some funny stuff on there… once.”

Why did he change the subject to Declan’s sporadically updated blog and what did he mean when he said “once”?

“Although, it’s not really writing,” continued the comedian as Declan swayed, leaning on one foot then the other. “Posting would be the more accurate term for a blog, wouldn’t it?”

Declan was too shitfaced to try and circle back to the conversation he’d imagined them having hours beforehand. Anna and Olivia were standing beside the comedian now and one of them was asking if Declan was alright and the other was nibbling the comedian’s ear, or maybe she was just whispering something. The very next day Declan couldn’t be sure if he just thought about saying or actually said out loud: “Anna, if we’d met five, six, seven, or eight years later than we did, would we have ended up married with two kids, a house in Dalkey, and an SUV?” He may have lunged open-mouthed at a female figure. It may have been Anna; it may have been Olivia. He couldn’t remember and he hoped he never did. He briefly considered emigrating just so he’d never have to see anyone he ever knew socially ever again. He put his phone where he wouldn’t hear it buzz or ping and contemplated deactivating his Facebook page. Eventually, he mustered the energy to launch his morning-after-the-night-before recovery programme, which involved eggs, bacon, HP Sauce, beans, buttered toast, orange juice, coffee, rehydration salts, Nurofen, a banana, and masturbation.

When he cracked the shell and dropped the egg in the sizzling pan, the yolk broke into a splatter. On the rare occasions he cooked, he normally imagined Gordon Ramsey hovering over his shoulder and critiquing his every move in the kitchen. This morning it was Samuel Beckett’s voice that he heard offering quiet words of encouragement: “Ever break an egg yolk. No matter. Fry again. Fry better. Enough.”

*

A year later Declan would watch an excerpt from one of the comedian’s multiple sold-out shows at the Olympia—a large venue for a stand-up comic—on YouTube. Much to Declan’s utter disbelief, the show was called The Porn Star’s Holiday. He fastidiously avoided the comedian but now couldn’t resist clicking play. After a dithering preamble, the comedian began by saying, “So anyway I met a porn star once. Can’t remember where, somewhere like Spiddle or Doolin, you know, where all the porn stars go for the craic agus ceol. I said to him you know, “we’re not so different, you and I, Mr. Ripped Van Huge Cock… We both have to perform night after night after night after night… And as you, me, and Axel Rose all know, nothing lasts forever in the cold November rain…” Over pints of Guinness in The Long Hall, Declan would tell Rory, Daragh, and Evan: “That fucking Kant Victor Hanratty stole my idea…” but they’d refuse to take his side. “I’m just saying, you can’t really steal drunken banter—it’s there for the taking,” said Rory, Daragh, or Evan. For the first time in years, maybe ever, Declan left the boozer before last orders.

Not long after, Declan was offered a role as a full-time columnist at the magazine after his predecessor “graduated” to a London newspaper. “I didn’t think I was funny enough to slip into George’s underpants,” said Declan. “You’re not,” replied the blunt assistant editor. “We’re hoping for something more angsty and thoughtful from you. These are more depressing times—the economy is fucked so we want more black humour and cynicism in the column than laugh-out-loud stuff.”

“…”

“Don’t look so surprised—you’re a great writer when you don’t try to be funny.”

*

That night, mulling over these words, Declan experienced what you might call an epiphany. The next day, he not only turned the offer down, but quit his job altogether and announced to the world (via Twitter) that he was moving back to his parents’ house in Balbriggan in search of “silence, exile, and his mother’s cooking.”

After dumping his bags in the hallway, he said, “Don’t worry Da, I’ll be out of here by Christmas.”

*

On New Year’s Eve, Declan’s father would suggest Declan start looking for a job. “If you really want to write a book, you’ll find the time, even if you’re working. You’ve been here for months and what have you got to show for it?” Declan stormed to his room—not completely unaware of how he was re-enacting one of his classic teenage strops from the late 1980s—and thrashed out five thousand words in a night. He felt like printing it out, kicking the old man’s bedroom door in, waving the pages in his face, and shouting—”Take the change outta that!” But in the morning, charged up on caffeine, he would start clipping and slicing away until there was just a single line that hadn’t been there in the first place: “Johnny, Johnny what were you thinking, wasting all that time on poesy when you could have been drinking?”

That night he e-mailed his old editor and asked about the possibility of returning to work at the magazine. He moved back to South Dublin the same week after borrowing some cash off his mother, who told him she was very proud of him and couldn’t wait to buy a signed copy of his book whenever he finished it.

*

Over the next year, Declan would stay in more than he went out on weeknights and try to complete a first draft of a book, which at one stage opened with the words, “This is one half and a biased account of a two-sided story…” If it had been read by any of Declan’s friends, the main character’s nemesis would have been recognisable as thinly veiled version of Victor Hanratty. The initial satisfaction of completing a book-long project faded fast after he printed out the pages and started to read it, but he decided he’d send it to some publishing houses anyway—surely, the editors would spot his genius and help out with a heavy edit. But all he ever received was a handful of very succinct but polite “thanks but no thanks”-style replies.

He would never truly give up on his literary ambitions. Every year for the next few years while on holiday he would open the document on his laptop and skim through, pruning some of the prose here and there and adding whole new passages, which would seem crisp and fresh at the time and make him believe that one day, soon, someone, somewhere might publish his book [Spoiler Alert: No one ever will].

Years from now, Declan will have a kid with a woman who looks a little bit like Olivia and talks a lot like Anna, and live in the cheaper edges of the Dublin 4 area in a rented redbrick house with a small back garden that sat beside a much bigger back garden; on Sunday afternoons he will still talk about finding the time to complete his novel and at night he will sometimes imagine reading his own interviews in the paper’s Arts section, and being described as a young Irish Don DeLillo even though he is no longer young. Occasionally, he’ll be seen at a party, enjoying a few extra-large glasses of wine too many and ranting about his distaste for comedy novels and, if presented with an opportunity, telling anyone and everyone how stand-up comics aren’t so funny when they’re sitting down and Rory, Evan, or Daragh will smile sympathetically, knowing that Declan will forever be denied the satisfaction of sticking the boot in, just once, and how, sadly, that was what he wanted more than anything else.

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