“Everyone thinks you’re dead, son, I may as well tell you now.”
No, that’s the other Tristram St. Lawrence.
Kinship to Tristram Shandy is hard to avoid in Claire Kilroy’s The Devil I Know, a deliberate satire of the Irish housing boom from not so long ago. In both real life and the world of the novel, financial bloat and lack of responsibility lead to devastating ruin. However, the novel itself is more concerned with the lead up. It’s conceit is that it is told in the year 2016 during a mysterious deposition of Tristram St. Lawrence, a recovering alcoholic and broken noble who most assumed dead for one reason or another and the lynchpin to some airy real estate scheme in his hometown.
Much like Sterne’s eponymous character, St. Lawrence is unable to easily explain his situation and instead tells a convoluted tale about his business dealings with a childhood friend, Desmond Hickey, and the mysterious Monsieur Deauville, whose identity becomes quite obvious as the narrative goes forward and onto its final pages.
St. Lawrence begins his story with his airplane being diverted to Dublin and, much to his dismay, he is now stuck in Ireland. He hasn’t returned to his home for years, even missing his own mother’s funeral, letting his ancestral home and his elderly father fall apart. A recovering alcoholic, it’s Kismet when he meets up with an old school peer in a bar and what proceeds is an ever-growing scheme to build, build, build.
The Devil I Know does that wonderful thing where it has the ability of leaving the reader in a narrative purgatory (pardon the pun). You’re never quite sure what’s happening to Tristram St. Lawrence. Everyone in his hometown, including Desmond Hickey, keep repeating the fact that they all thought he was dead, which gave my readerly brain slight tingles thinking about Flann O’Brien. St. Lawrence keeps insisting that that was the other Tristram St. Lawrence. Also, the absent M. Deauville, whose page time is mostly conducted over a phone call with the narrator is in a word intriguing even as his identity becomes both clear and more difficult by the novel’s end.
St. Lawrence is a classic unreliable narrator. His deposition can easily be picked apart and nothing that St. Lawrence actually says is concrete. Here, however, is where the novel feels thin. Clearly, a deal with the devil is occurring; one that the narrator can never escape. Kilroy is lampooning Ireland’s financial bust through this idea, one that I think is clever in general and also poignant for a country filled with folklore.
Yet, the Faustian plot was pulled for too long. Sometimes, as I was reading, the narrative suffered from not having any sort of tension. You would think such a pact would elicit more salacious doings and undoings. Yes, St. Lawrence is secretive and his flamboyant testimony hides the real deeds underneath, but not enough of it poked out.
Kilroy’s satire and tongue-in-cheek were an interesting route to present Ireland’s bust, but it wasn’t enough to carry the whole novel. This was a tricky one. I enjoyed much of it and the teetering concept of real and imagined was an exciting element, yet, these factors, perhaps, were not enough to keep the novel on sturdy legs.