Irish Book Review: The Ballad of Mo & G by Billy Keane

Billy Keane (The Last of the Heroes) returns to our bookshelves with The Ballad of Mo & G, a dark comedy set during the post-boom hangover.

New Irish FIction: The Ballad of Mo & G

The Ballad of Mo & G by Billy Keane (Liberties Press)

Mo and G are friends from college. She (Mo) is very bright but lacking in confidence after growing up in one of the worst part of the city. He (G) is also clever, but as he’s a physically small and unassertive man, he can never be one of the lads – in fact, he doesn’t even seem to deserve a full name! They love each other, but he never has the guts to tell her that he’s in love with her. Predictably, she ends up pregnant by a criminal psychopath (Dermo), married to him, and living in ‘the compound,’ his family’s sprawling rural hideaway – a “muddy yard like a bombed convoy.” 

G continues to be Mo’s friend, something she needs badly after the unstable (mainly due to drink and drugs) Dermo begins to beat her. As things quickly escalate, G has to think of something that might help Mo escape her predicament.

In many ways this is similar to the “young-bollix-on-the-tear” novel: told by the “straight-man” sidekick, charting the downfall of a violent big fish in a small puddle; but there’s much more going on in Billy Keane’s mind than just this age-old story. There are fascinating asides and secondary characters who could easily support novels on their own:

– Mo is said to be part of a generation for whom sex is no big deal, and who view the physical act as quite distinct from an emotional one. Although G is the same age, he’s not so detached. Whether or not this is true, there’s little room to explore this thesis within the confines of the novel.

– G’s mother has been widowed, but is taking control of her life by hosting an explicit radio show dissecting Ireland’s sexual mores (“That was Mam. Torn between being a modern mam talking about sex on the radio, and an old-fashioned one, who was liberal for everyone except her sons”), and embarking on a new romance.

– Dermo’s mother is initially hostile to Mo (“like all mothers-in-law, everywhere, without exception, without a frigging millidoubt… [she] greatly resented any woman having sex with her son”), but comes to bond with her as the daughter she never had.

That’s not to say those novels would be better than The Ballad of Mo & G, but to observe that although Keane has gone with the perennial favorite small-town-kids-heading-for-trouble plot, there’s much more to this story than a quick summary might suggest. Behind the protagonists, we sense a rich and troubled community reshaping itself in the aftermath of the Celtic Tiger years. It’s a dark comedy for dark times, and much of our laughter is from a rueful sense of how well the author has nailed his audience.

This is definitely a novel to read in one sitting! The story picks up pace as it progresses and you’re never sure if the ending will be as tragic as you fear, given the drug-fueled, incoherent rage of Dermo, or be somehow redemptive. Billy Keane has a sure command of the different voices and keeps the dialogue realistic without getting bogged down by resorting to tortured spelling or other inelegant tricks to convey different dialects.

The Ballad of Mo & G is a very dark comedy, but also a perceptive snapshot of a community in transition, trying to cope with the sudden absence of economic or moral certainties.



The Ballad of Mo & G can be purchased from Liberties Press.


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