It’s that time of year when relatives are starting to buy all kinds of ill-advised presents for loved ones and books always feature fairly high on the list of such items. Obviously, given the laws of supply and demand and all that, there are loads of new books hitting the shelves at the moment but, with an eye on the Pareto principle, one could be forgiven for concluding that most of them are worth avoiding.
In common with all other genres, GAA-related books tend to appear in numbers at this time of year. In general, I find that these titles tend to be fairly hit-and-miss, with more emphasis on the latter compared to the former. Partly I suppose it’s because, as is the case with every sports title (as well as The Day of the Jackal), you know how the book’s going to end but in many cases it’s because the material can often be dull, ghostwritten stuff. It’s very rare, in other words, to find yourself with an unputdownable sports book, though I think Keith Duggan’s examination of our travails came pretty close. (Sports-related novels are an even rarer bird but David Peace’s The Damned Utd is an absolute classic within this category).
I’ve read two GAA books over the past few weeks and I wouldn’t recommend giving either of them to your favourite uncle this festive season. Both are ghostwritten and the ghouls that wrote them don’t seem to be the liveliest souls in town. (Incidentally, before I taking up these two books, I read Robert Harris’s Ghost, a lively thriller written from the standpoint of a ghostwriter and which proved far more entertaining than either of the ghostwritten titles I subsequently tackled).
Oisin McConville’s The Gambler isn’t even a new book – it was out in time for last Christmas – but it’s still on some bookshelves this year. There’s some moderately interesting bits in it, like when he talks about Armagh’s mental demeanour in the run-up to their breakthrough All-Ireland success in 2002 but he then fails to give any kind of considered opinion as to why, having reached the summit, Armagh were unable to add at least one other All-Ireland to that solitary success.
When the book was initially published around this time last year, most of the attention (hardly surprising, given its title) concentrated on McConville’s travails with the bookies and his decision to tell the world about his problems seemed to make it some kind of cathartic addict-in-recovery exercise. If it is, it’s a very leaden and one-dimensional recounting of an addiction case study and, like much else in the book, there’s very little in this that would make you warm to the Armagh man’s story. You end up (well, I did) with the impression that he’s a bit of a dour, humourless and rather immature kind of individual, one who had the bad fortune to team up with a dull and unimaginative ghostwriter.
Paddy Russell’s Final Whistle is a bit better but, in truth, that wouldn’t be difficult. Most of the real newsworthy bits of this one – especially his take on the Paul Galvin affair – have already been serialised in the media and so there’s little new to be learned from reading the book itself. The stuff about the controversial 1995 All-Ireland final is interesting, although I thought the way he dwelt at length about how the fall-out from his handling of the game affected him personally was a tad overcooked. His description of how he recognised that he’d handled the Battle of Omagh poorly and how, arising from this, he dealt very differently with the Donnycarney Donnybrook earlier this year is an illuminating insight into how a ref goes about doing his business. Mayo readers will also be interested to know that Paddy concedes he should have sent off Ciaran Whelan for that disgraceful tackle on our Ronan in 2006. He claims not to have seen the incident but my memory of the match was that he was perfectly positioned and just bottled the decision. His views on what needs to be done to ensure better reffing (a second ref positioned in the stands and giving umpires the right to draw the refs attention to all infractions on the field) are, given his long experience with the whistle, worthy of due consideration.
But the book itself is a frustrating and poorly assembled read. It’s very oddly written because, although ostensibly it’s Paddy’s own story, it’s peppered through with direct quotes from twenty or thirty other people, including his wife and kids, other refs, linesmen and umpires and anyone else who happens to stick his beak in. The result is that there’s hardly any continuity to the narrative and Paddy’s story – which is betimes one worth listening to (and one which could give myself and others cause to think before launching into yet another tirade of ahforfuckssakerefyahfuckingbollixyah) – gets lost in this thicket of unnecessary other voices, whose addition detracts greatly from the core narrative.
So, don’t waste you hard-earned, credit-crunch imperilled euros on either of these. Instead, for what it’s worth, here’s my (non-GAA) shortlist for the best books I’ve read so far this year. All but one are non-fiction and in this category there’s Peter Godwin’s Mukiwa, Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song (an oldie, I know, and a very long one too but a totally riveting read), Simon Sebag Montefiore’s two Stalin books (Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar and Young Stalin), Nicholas Rankin’s Telegram from Guernica and (another oldie this, but republished earlier this year as a Penguin Modern Classic) the searing The Grass Arena by John Healy (not that John Healy, this one). Topping the lot, however, is Joseph O’Neill’s majestic, lyrical novel Netherland which, as well as being a wonderfully written deliberation about a man adrift in post-9/11 America, even has a sporting theme, albeit that it’s cricket played by a Dutchman in New York. O’Neill should have run away with this year’s Booker but in the event he only made the longlist. Crap refereeing isn’t confined to GAA pitches, it would seem.