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A review of the original 1990 edition, from the Literary Review UK

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Literary Review

London, September, 1990.
Feeling a Lemon: review by Bernard O’Keefe.

Adult toilet anxiety is a neurosis more widely spread than psychologists might realise. Quite how this anxiety might manifest itself in women I am not sure, but for men I think there is a pattern; the ‘toilet anxious’ man stands at the urinal unable to perform if there is anyone standing next to him. Those who suffer will recognise it instantly; the discomfort of sideways looks, fake shakes and hasty zippers. Until now, I have never seen the subject given proper literary treatment, but with the arrival of O’Leary Montagu, the central character in Jamie O’ Neill’s capable, witty, dark comedy, we surely have the first literary hero for the toilet anxious.

O’Leary Montagu’s anxiety is, like most of his neuroses, more complex than most. It is not limited to urinals – he has to wait outside any apparently empty cubicle for a precautionary five minutes – and it also causes him to carry with him, at all times, a jiffy lemon. This has become his talisman. A touch of the soft orb is generally enough to reassure him, but its real magic becomes apparent at the urinal where a cunning hole in his trousers enables him, in anxious moments, to squirt it at the porcelain. Occasionally his aim may be far from true and lemon juice might splatter his neighbour’s feet but the jiffy goes some way towards making O’Leary feel a fully toilet-capable human.

Toilets hold many dark secrets for O’Leary but they initially seem to be the least of his problems. A road accident at the age of twenty-five has left him scarred and amnesiac, deprived of history and identity, and newly christened after the ward sister, O’Leary, and the consultant, Montagu. This seems bad enough but soon a bizarre incident in a public toilet sees the beginning of both the literary and lavatorial obsessions which have haunted him for the last eleven years. When O’Leary is stand-ing at the urinal, a young book thief, chased by the police into the public lavatory, deposits a copy of Ill Fares The Land by Nancy Valentine in his jacket pocket. This leads to O’Leary’s arrest, his criminal record as a sexual deviant, and a highly developed toilet neurosis. It also leads to an unhealthy interest in Nancy Valentine, whom he now regards simply as The Mistress.

O’Leary’s copy of Ill Fares The Land, Nancy Valentine’s memoirs, seems to have a ‘t’ printed instead of the ‘e’ in ‘Fares’ but O’Leary convinces himself that his is a proof copy riddled with printer’s errors. Such unfortunate misprints cannot cure his obsession with The Mistress and he quickly becomes familiar with every detail of her life – her happy childhood in the big house, Knight’s Kilbrack, and the unspecified disaster which caused her to quit her father’s home.

Eleven years after his accident, O’Leary embarks on a journey to Kilbrack and a search for the truth of Nancy Valentine. His arrival causes concern among the bizarre inhabitants of the village, many of whom seem as neurotic as O’Leary himself: J D Downey, the local pharmacist, obsessed with his own talisman, a Swiss Army Knife, unknowingly dispensing cocaine to poor Nellie Maguire who thinks it’s Beechams Powder; Mrs Cuthbert, desperate to restore the family fortune by having her daughter marry O’Leary rather than become a nun; the Parish priest busy cornering the market in Irish ham. The village is populated by the mad and the eccentric, all of whom, like the geography of Kilbrack itself, seem remarkably familar to O’Leary.

None seems more mad than Valentine Brack, the master of Knight’s Kilbrack, yet it is through him that the reader even-tually discovers the truth of O’Leary Montagu. It would be unfair to reveal too much of the unravelling but it results from a growing understanding of three literary texts; Murder in The Big House, Ill Fares The Land and Ill Farts The Land (which turns out to be a privately published parody). The link between them explains much about O’Leary’s relationship with his past and the nature of his sexual identity. It also reveals much about the Mistress, to whom O’Leary is more closely related than he could ever have dreamed.

Jamie O’Neill’s strength lies in his capturing of slow rural Irish wit, his exposure of literary absurdity and excess, and, most powerfully, in his depiction of obsessive behaviour. His novel may end on a note of harmonious reconciliation and may be peppered with bright witty moments, but its lasting impression is of laughter tinged with melancholy, of comic alienation. O’Leary’s coming home is also his coming out but it may not, one fears, be the last time he needs to feel a lemon in the toilets.