April 23 2011
Born in Toronto but raised in Ireland, Ed O’Loughlin was a foreign correspondent for The Irish Times and other newspapers before writing his first novel, Not Untrue and Not Unkind, which was longlisted for the 2009 Man Booker Prize.
Taking as its main characters a bunch of hacks scavenging for scoops in war-torn Africa, it was a book of great promise, full of vividly realised scenes and wry observations, though somewhat let down by the author’s decision to introduce a redundant back story rather than keep to the main narrative.
Toploader, which is O’Loughlin’s second novel, suffers from no such structural wobbling. Indeed, this black farce about western military shenanigans in an unnamed Middle Eastern country is very much all of a piece, hurtling confidently and pleasurably through an ever-twisting storyline that involves corrupt US colonels, vainglorious journalists, a resourceful young girl, an exploding donkey and a washing machine (the toploader of the title) that isn’t what it appears to be.
The action begins as the donkey blows itself up at the wall of the Allied compound, from which safe haven the military has been technologically monitoring the movements of those confined to the Endangered Zone (that is, all the local citizenry) and bombarding them, whenever it deems fit, with remote-controlled missiles — the basic logic being that anyone who’s corralled in the zone is probably up to no good.
Or as young Flora puts it to the conniving Captain Smith: “So just because somebody might conceivably be able to attack you, you treat them as if they already have?” To which Smith replies that, though this might seem unfair, “we can’t afford to take any risks with the wellbeing of our own people.” But, she asks, what about the well-being of herself and other local innocents? “The captain tapped the screen sadly. ‘It says here that you’re all terrorists’.”
I won’t even try to describe the plot, which concerns the frantic efforts by variously interested parties to retrieve the much-coveted washing machine and which depends for its impact on a succession of misunderstandings and misreadings based on false assumptions and misinformation. Suffice to say that O’Loughlin handles its intricacies with exhilarating assurance, so that even the daftest of developments are made to seem entirely reasonable.
We’re in Catch-22 territory here, with the reader invited to contemplate the insanity of war, the brutality and venality of those who enforce it and the helplessness of those caught up in its murderous self-interest. But it’s to the author’s credit that, rather than moralise, he lets the lunacy of his ripping yarn and the idiocies of its corrupt protagonists do the talking for him.
In fact, the book is essentially a page-turning romp, clearly aimed at an international market and with an eye to movie adaptation too. Indeed, the frantic plot developments seem made for a Bourne-type high-voltage thriller, though I fancy that O’Loughlin’s darkly comic tone would get lost in the process and there’s no hero for whom cinemagoers might root.