Wednesday, September 24, 2014

When Dreams Come True: Joseph O'Connor's The Thrill of It All

Joseph O’Connor is Sinead O’Connor’s brother. It’s true. I just discovered this yesterday when I was nearly finished reading his new book, The Thrill of It All. It’s about an ‘80s rock band called Ships in the Night and it has nothing to do with Sinead O’Connor, except that her name shows up in a later chapter as one of the contemporary rock stars the reunited Ships are hanging with. Why do I mention this at all? Not sure, really. Interest? I’ve read three of Joseph O’Connor’s books now. I picked up Star of the Sea on a whim in a Dublin bookshop because I just loved the cover, and it was written by an Irishman, and there I was in Ireland, so… I thought it somehow appropriate. It was a stunning and totally engaging read. Remarkable. I couldn’t wait to get to a Canadian bookshop and pick up another of his books. Trouble was… no one had any. A couple of years later Redemption Road appeared, to great reviews. I couldn’t really get into it. A disappointment. I’ll try it again now, after finishing The Thrill of It All.

Named after a Roxy Music song from their 1974 album Country Life, The Thrill of It All tells the story of this band of misfits. (Why is it named after that Roxy Music song? You’ll have to figure that out for yourself.) Robbie Goulding is an Irish-born teenager who picks up a guitar, and forms a band with Vietnamese orphan Francis Xavier Mulvey (more about him later). They enlist the beautiful cellist Sarah-Therese Sherlock and her brother Sean, a tradesman who plays the drums. Together they are the Ships. This is their story. The book is structured like one of those rock star biographies that are appearing everywhere these days. Before Christmas, we’ll see Mick Fleetwood, Jerry Lee Lewis, another volume of Neil Young’s ramblings, and more. So why would anyone who cared about the rock’n’roll life read a fictional book over the real thing? Well, because O’Connor is a good writer, and I’m not so sure about Mick Fleetwood. Keith Richards turned out to be a great story-teller, as did Ray Davies and Pete Townshend. If you were in the right mindset Neil Young’s Waging Heavy Peace was fascinating, and Bob Dylan? Well, I can’t wait for Volume Two of his Chronicles, but sometimes these books are a complete waste of time. The Thrill of It All is somewhere in the middle of this milieu. Well written, the tales are completely believable. The inner workings of a band are, hmmm, shall we say labyrinthine A band is put together in much the way O’Connor describes it. Two like-minded guitar strummers jam together in one or the other’s living room until their parents kick them into the garage, or the basement, or better yet the other fellow’s house! They recruit a bass player and a drummer and then they start playing little gigs at the school, or the local pub. I’ve done it and so have hundreds of thousands of other teachers, accountants, and other used-to-wanna be rock stars.

Author Joseph O'Connor.
When the Ships in the Night hit, however, they hit it big, and egos got in the way. O’Connor’s tale of the beginnings and growth of the band are fascinating. Then the Ships are somehow, surprisingly, big news, and Francis Xavier Mulvey is on top of the world. What happens next, is the turning point. The last third of the book hangs on his disappearance. We discover what happened to Rob, Trez and Sean but Fran is on another level. We see from his rider that he gets booked into only six-star hotels, and if one is not available and he must stay in a five-star… he demands the entire floor to himself. Strangely, this is not the most bizarre band rider I’ve ever seen. I read one once where all the blue Smarties had to be removed from the ever-present bowl of Smarties in some band’s dressing room. The candy coating doesn’t have any flavour for crying out loud! What difference does it make? Power.

There’s very little in this novel that you can’t find in one of those official as-told-by autobiographies. The fact that O’Connor has written it as fiction means that some readers will find it as hard to believe as science fiction! The truth is, that this is what happens to some people when their dreams come true. Is this book as engaging as Star of the Sea? Not by half. But did it provide a few laughs? Indeed.

– David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas, Ontario with his wife.

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