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Old 5th Jul 2015, 20:18   #1
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Default Simon Kerr: The Rainbow Singer

The Rainbow Singer is a coming-of-age novel by Ulsterian ("Ulsterite"? Naw, that sounds like a rock that catches fire when you pour Guinness over it... is there no descriptive term of "native of Ulster" but "native of Ulster"?) Simon Kerr.

The book's protagonist, Wil Carson, is a fourteen year-old boy from Ulster who, at that tender age is already secretly a minor enforcer for the Ulster Freedom Fighters (a Protestant terrorist group), checked out on the Colt .45 pistol and the AK-47 terrorist stick, and just the right age to be sent as part of the Protestant contingent of that year's Ulster Project class to take the place of someone who dropped out of the Project at the last minute.

The Ulster Project, you have to understand, is a real-life program in which the youth of Ulster are sent to America to see life without sectarian strife between Catholics and Protestants.

Ten Northern Irish Catholics and ten Northern Irish Protestants are sent over to various cities in the United States of America to live with host families of the same sect, then engage in what we in the States call "bonding activities" to demonstrate that people can and do get along even when they belong to different faiths. Trips to amusement parks, canoe outings, that sort of thing.

What could go wrong, right? And author Simon Kerr doesn't disappoint the reader. From the get-go (a preliminary meeting of the kids from both sides of the sectarian line), a soccer game turns into a re-enactment of the Battle of the Boyne, and Wil gets fouled, then surrepititiously whacked around a little by two Catholic boys before one of the Project volunteers calls off the game, seemingly oblivious to the travesty that was just made of their little ecumenical project.

What seems to be a silver lining to Wil's football injuries, a tentative overture from Teresa, a Catholic girl along for the ride to the land where you don't get shot for being the wrong kind of Christian, turns out to be another complication once the Projectees are feet-dry in the USA. So does just about everything else during Wil's stay in New Berlin, Wisconsin with the family of a Presbyterian minister named Horrowitz.

That's where, in my opinion, Kerr starts tipping his hand to the reader. "Horrowitz" ties in with Wil's nightmares starring Freddy Kruger (the book's set in the 1980s), and the later action of the book. There are probably less obvious ways to foreshadow a massacre.

Kerr also has Wil narrate the action with quite a bit of leftist psychobabbling for someone who started the book a right-wing terrorist. I mean, there is such a thing as "jailhouse conversion," but I really wonder if the average prison library (Wil's only recreation from his solitary confinement in the book's present) has all that many books on how the patriarchy screws Western civilization up. I could be wrong - the urge to socially-engineer prison inmates goes back to the early days of penology.

I mention this because all through the book, Wil's narrative voice oscillates from sporadically-educated, hard-bitten Ulster Protestant youth to earnest convert to psychoanalytical sociology.

By the time we're done reading The Rainbow Singer, we've been schooled on all would be wine and roses if kids told their parents to stuff it at puberty, and we retarded Americans would stop playing with guns (not much in the book about how nice it'd be if the Northern Irish forgot how to play with them, though). There's a lecture on those subjects every few pages.

I'd say this was pulling the long bow a little too hard, but one of my sons committed what was technically an armed robbery, wound up in the penal system for just over two years, and came out an instant expert on everything that was wrong with his parents, society, and the world in general. He's actually a little more coherent, with his prison high-school diploma, than some full-on Marxist sociologists with three letters after their names, but that's not saying much but that Kerr's protagonist is more realistic than he might seem to be.

Without giving much away that Kerr doesn't have his protagonist give away, The Rainbow Singer oscillates between being a decent coming-of-age story (though by no means "young adult fiction" - it's nothing I'd hand my grandson) and a string of tiresome lectures on a country I doubt, from some of Kerr's mistakes, like repeatedly confusing Winnebago (a popular American make of recreational vehicle - "caravan" to our British readers) with Wendigo, which is the actual name of the Algonquian Native American trickster spirit to which Wil repeatedly refers, that Kerr's ever visited.

Kerr might have had his protagonist make that mistake purposefully, but I much doubt it. Wil touches every other base in psychoanalytic/sociological baseball squarely and with very clear diction - another false note in the narrative. Wil is foul-mouthed and ignorant in his speech, very free with the "universal adjective," except when he walks over to the podium to tell the rest of us where we're going wrong. Then he sounds like Sir Kenneth Clark.

I'm not of the ilk who say only Americans can criticize the United States. Some of the best things written about America have been written by foreigners, from Comte Alexis de Tocqueville to John Oliver (the guy who may just have gotten Sepp Blatter ditched from FIFA, and who showed that no good deed goes unpunished by having to drink a Bud Lime - yes, a lime-flavored beer, every bit as nasty as you'd think - in "celebration").

But when an author gets the names of things wrong, it makes you wonder how much attention he paid to everything else he wrote about. John Oliver, or his HBO show's staff, pretty much sweat the details, so that even when you disagree with them, you respect what they have to say. I don't think Kerr sweated very many details while researching The Rainbow Singer. He seems to have started with a nice set of preconceptions and left them untouched all the way to print.

It all depends on what you want to read. If you are of the same political wing as Simon Kerr, you'll have a lot of fun reading his commentary. And you're welcome to him and his book.
"The proper study of man is everything." C.S. Lewis

"Those whom the gods would destroy, they first make ridiculous." P.J. O'Rourke

Last edited by loupgarous; 12th Jul 2015 at 23:14.
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Old 9th Jul 2015, 17:04   #2
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Default Re: The Rainbow Singer by Simon Kerr

("Ulsterite"? Naw, that sounds like a rock that catches fire when you pour Guinness over it... is there no descriptive term of "native of Ulster" but "native of Ulster"?)

I believe the term is Ulsterman, if it's a man. Ulsterpersons of the opposite sex do not seem to be considered.
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Old 12th Jul 2015, 22:56   #3
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Default Re: The Rainbow Singer by Simon Kerr

Now that I think about it, you're right. C.S. Lewis described his old tutor William Thompson "The Great Knock" Kirkpatrick as an "Ulsterman" in Surprised by Joy.
"The proper study of man is everything." C.S. Lewis

"Those whom the gods would destroy, they first make ridiculous." P.J. O'Rourke
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