By Simon Kerr
Published by Hyperion
June 2002; 0786867981; 304 pages
If you really want to hear about it, there's a few things you should know about Project Ulster before I really kick off on the story improper. It was promote din the throat-cutting churches and chapels of Northern Ireland with the slogan "The Rainbow of Hope." The pot of gold at the end of this rainbow was the relative peace of the unwild Midwest USA. And I think, thought I may be wrong, that they had that Red and yellow and pink and green, orange and purple and blue, I can sing a rainbow, sing a rainbow, sing a rainbow, too as their their theme song.
Not exactly Iron Maiden is it? So did I sing their rainbow- awe, I did like fuck!
My name, the good Prod name my parents gave me, is Wil Carson: Wil after the Father of Ulster, King Bully; Carson after being related to the savior of Partition, Lord Carson.
I was sold the Rainbow of Hope on the last Sunday in the pissing wet May of 1985. Yeah, it's been fifteen long years, first in Lincoln Hills School for Juvenile Offenders and then in the Green Bay Correctional Institution, but I can still say what May day it was. I was sold out on the 27th. My Ma was the Project salesman, or should that be saleswoman, or even the salesperson? Doesn't matter, it doesn't do to be too PC or people think you're weak.
Anyway, as I was trying to say, we were in the living room after Sunday lunch when my Ma stops her claw-fingered knitting, takes off her horn-rimmed NHS glasses, and comes right out with it: "You know, Wil, I was chatting away to Pastor Good at the end of the service and well, he says you could go to America for a month scot-free."
Now I was sitting right in front of the TV at the time, watching El Cid hay-bed Sophia Loren and fiddling mightily with my ucksters, so I didn't think I heard her right. "What's that you say, Ma?"
"The pastor has put your name up as a substitute for Project Ulster."
All of a sudden she had my full attention. I don't think my Ma was used to getting anybody's full attention ever, certainly not me or my Da's, so she became a little self-conscious. She might even have blushed some when she said, "Someone dropped out. Wouldn't you like to go on a holiday, son?"
"You're fucking dead right I would!"
I got a right slap around the gob for saying that, but any fourteen-year-old no-hoper form the back streets of East Belfast would have done the same thing and cursed his good fortune.
Looking back on it, though, I think: is that what did it for me? But then I get to thinking - What is a blessing? What is a curse? What is a fortune after all? And it beats the fuck out of me. Life has always been a mixing up of the good and the back and the me. Things I think will be good don't turn out that way. Things I dread doing I end up enjoying. I've tried reversing things, the polarity of fate, you know like turning the positive into the negative before it occurs, but nah, that doesn't work. Maybe if I hadn't mocked my future my past wouldn't have been mapped out that way? But then how are you supposed to consider your future at the time? Or your present. Or your past for that matter? In terms of good and bad? Who the hell knows what good or bad really is? Can morality be applied to life's chronology? The very thought is a bag of shite. We're all taught Plato's morality (wrapped up in Christianity) and I read in the prison library that Plato used to fuck young boys up the arse. I didn't make my life happen. Time made me. Place made me. Why am I supposed to regret what I did when I was brought up by God-loving, God-fearing Christians to do it? They taught me to call people Taigs, and hate those they said were Taigs, so like a good Prod I hated Taigs so much I could have killed every last one of them.
I'll tell you something else for nothing - I hated them Taigs a fuckload more later on that pissing Sunday. Right after the evening service, the stiff-lipped ol' Pastor told my Ma and me, "Now, Wil, you know what the Project is?"
"Nah," I said. "Tell us."
The Pastor cleared his throat like he always did prior to preaching. "from what I've heard, which I'll admit isn't much at this late stage, it's about the Americans bringing you to America to teach you about peace and reconciliation, son."
I said, "Right?"
"They want to help us take the gun out of politics, son."
I said, "They do, do they?"
"Yes. They want to help us stop the youth of today becoming involved in paramilitary groups."
I said, "Aye- you're kidding?"
But he wasn't. He looked deadly serious. I had to choke back a laugh.
"And if you're going, Wil," the Pastor went on, "you'll be going with nine other God-fearing Protestants your own age."
At that point I cheered and punched the air. That sounded great!
Then he added, "And as I understand it, given the conditions of the Project, ten Catholics."
"Taigs?" I spat the word out.
"Wil!" said Ma.
"Ten Taigs!" I shout again.
The ol' Pastor corrected me, "Catholics, son. Catholics."
I thumped my Bible on my thigh and walked away. "No way," I said. "No way, Jose!"
Ma chased me out of church. "Don't be like that, Wil!" she shouted.
I looked back in anger. It's funny, I can still see that moment. She was small, frail under the cross - the gold cross hanging over the church door. If she'd only known her own wee son was imagining her martyr carcass nailed up there. The Crucifixion of St. Ma, Jesus H. Christ, forgive us our trespasses.
"You should have told me the catch!" I yelled at her. And I stomped home the long way through our estate, by myself, in the pissing dusk. It was always pissing down on me - and that isn't just me projecting my mood onto recollections of the weather.
I mean, I was so gutted at losing out on that trip. And yet, thinking about it objectively, or as objectively as any individual can get, what did the loss of the American Dream mean to me then? A lot and not a lot of nonsense.
I would never see the Hollywood sign on that hill.
I would never be drivin or drive in a pink Cadillac.
I would never gorge on burgers.
I would never see a Van Halen concert.
I would never see naked sorority girls' tits and arses and beavers like in that movie Porky's.
I would never been given an American Football helmet as a souvenir of my trip.
Worse of all, I would not be able to boast I'd done or got any of these things to my schoolmates at Belvoir High when I cam back.
All thanks to them ten faceless Taigs!Copyright © 2002 Simon Kerr
Reprinted with permission.
Written in an engaging lilt reminiscent of Roddy Doyle, this darkly comic first novel introduces America to the talents of a wonderfully original young writer.
The narrator of this harrowing and hilarious novel is Wil Carson, a former Protestant ex-thug from Northern Ireland. Wils adolescent hatred of Catholics is inherited from his bigoted father, but his sardonic twist on life as a "no-hoper from the Backstreets of East Belfast" is all his own. When the opportunity of a lifetime arises -- a chance to travel to America as part of a church-sponsored peace project -- Wil decides to swallow his prejudices and go along with the program. But his goodwill only goes so far, and a series of tragicomic events lands him in a Wisconsin penitentiary. Wils stint behind bars leaves him plenty of time to review his past deeds, ponder the choices hes made, and reflect on a life of mixed blessings and curses. The Rainbow Singer offers a unique slant on Northern Irelands ethnic strife as well as an utterly original and distinct new voice in fiction.(back to top)
Simon Kerr was born in Belfast in 1971 but now lives in what was "enemy territory" to him: namely the Republic of Ireland. He was awarded the Brian Moore Short Story Award and holds an MFA from Bath Spa University.