When it comes to Brian Moore’s body of work, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne is often – justifiably – considered to be his masterpiece. I would argue though, that The Emperor of Ice-cream is another contender for that accolade.
Written in 1965, The Emperor of Ice-cream was Brian Moore’s fifth novel and is his most autobiographical. It is his third novel set in Belfast (after Judith Hearne and The Feast of Lupercal) and is a bildungsroman featuring another of Moore’s protagonists who feels that they have lost their way in a city that is stifling and parochial.
It is 1939 and the Second World War is raging, although not in Northern Ireland. Gavin Burke, a 17 year old who has failed his school Leaving Cert and has joined the First Aid Party (FAP) of the Air Raid Precautions Unit (a job also held by Moore). The job is a disappointment in a variety of ways. It doesn’t sit well with his Catholic, nationalist father, who sees it as a step too close to support of the British Forces, and it is a step too far from being impressive enough for Gavin’s girlfriend Sally.
For Gavin, “war was freedom, freedom from futures”. He sees the war as an opportunity, and as a way to rebel against the strictures placed on his from all sides – his family’s expectations, his girlfriend’s staunch Catholicism and his own feelings of self-recrimination. For Gavin, the war is not a geo-political or moral stance, but more an opportunity to allow him to escape from his father’s expectations. In this coming-of-age tale, we empathise with Gavin as he maintains running inner monologues with the White Angel sitting on his right shoulder, who advises him to do what is expected of him and the Black Angel on his left shoulder, who suggests that he should maybe live a little more dangerously.
Well Burke, said the White Guardian Angel. Are you a man or a mouse? Take off your raincoat. Yes, and put your tin hat on while you are at it, mocked the Black Angel. Salute the naval lieutenant, he’s your superior. Nonsense, the White Angel said. You’re a civilian, he has no authority over you. How can you be sure, the Black Angel whispered…Sometimes the Black Angel was too cheeky for his own good.
The novel begins as a kind of comedy of errors as Gavin battles with his inner demons to the detriment of his relationships and gets to know the motley crew of recruits at the FAP, who provide much of the humour of the novel. Moore has always been good at investing even the most minor of characters with a believable humanity, but here he excels. The depiction of Gavin’s disparate band of work colleagues could easily have slipped into caricature, but Moore is smarter than that. ‘Your Man’ Gallagher, is a staunch Republican who ‘no longer had great hopes for the IRA to overthrow the British. He put his money on Hitler’ while The Captain is an aging alcoholic who is more of a liability than an asset, but whose connections to the ‘higher-ups’ renders him immune to any form of recrimination. Boorish Bobby is proud of his past brushes with the law and Frank Price lives with his unmarried sisters, grateful to be in a job after years of unemployment. Gavin soon realises the nature of company that he is keeping.
We’re the unemployables, we’re a joke. And everyone thinks we’re a pack of loafers.
Their leader, Mr Craig is typical of a man who has been given limited responsibility and turns it to a megalomaniacal sense of power, ruling through intimidation and threat rather than initiation and support. Gavin falls in with Freddy Hargreaves, through their shared love of modern poetry (the novel’s title comes from a Wallace Stevens poem), and despite coming from different backgrounds, the two become friends, both rejecting the traditional conventions of their parochial society. Freddy introducing Gavin to a subculture in Belfast that he has never experienced, through drunken nights out on the town introducing him to gay men, Jews bohemians and kept women, a world far beyond Gavin’s limited experience so far.
As Gavin works and plays and waits for something – anything – to happen, he comes to the conclusion that being a grown-up is not very different from being a child and that any change, is going to be hard won.
Yet both worlds ran on the same old moral lines: although he had left God behind in the dusty past of chapel, confessional, and classroom, the catechism rules prevailed. In both worlds, lack of purpose, lack of faith, was the one deadly sin. In both worlds, the authorities, detecting that sin, arranged one’s punishment. All of life’s races are fixed and false.
The change that Gavin has been waiting for comes when the unthinkable happens and Belfast is bombed by the Germans. The bombing of the city, which Gavin, in moments of discouragement had wished for, mainly because he could never see it happening, brings the reality of his position into sharp focus.
The fear and chaos of the bombings is depicted with a sharp brilliance by Moore and the horror of what has happened becomes all too real when Gavin volunteers to work at the morgue preparing the dead bodies for identification.
The Black Angel sneered. Be heroic, the angel said, yes, over dead bodies you become a hero.
Gavin might not become a hero, but as the novel moves towards a surprisingly moving and emotional climax, the voices of his angels that have led him through his childhood, fade away and are replaced by a new voice – a voice he finds within himself.
The Emperor of Ice-cream is an unlikely masterpiece, with its comic set-pieces and self-absorbed hero, but again it showcases Moore’s skill in depicting a very specific place and time. He weaves themes of religion and belief, stagnation and growth into a particularly readable narrative His focus on a character’s personal journey through a time of crisis is again to the fore, and in the case of Gavin Burke, it is both heart-breaking and hopeful.
That this novel was out of print for so long is quite astonishing, so it is very welcome that Turnpike Books have just reissued the book for a new and appreciative audience.
Why not join in next month when I will be reading The Dear Departed, the recently reissued selected short stories of Brian Moore.
You can also check out the great events happening throughout the year at the official Brian Moore at 100 website.
READ ON: BOOK
NUMBER READ: 344
NUMBER REMAINING: 402
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!