After last summer’s riots, and the resulting chorus of accusation and analysis from a remote middle class media, Wee Rockets feels like a very prescient book, focused on feral kids with lives dominated by casual brutality and rabid consumerism. Reading some of the early reviews I was concerned that Gerard Brennan had turned out a piece of thinly veiled moral commentary – much talk of disenfranchisement and wasted lives – but he’s a far better writer than that and sidesteps the tedious politicising in order to produce another brisk and spiky crime novel.
Set on the mean streets of West Belfast – heartland of The Troubles but now in the throes of regeneration – Wee Rockets follows a group of young working class boys who aspire towards thugdom; you couldn’t call them a gang at the outset but they’re causing enough trouble to have the residents association worried. After they beat up an old dear, local Gaelic footballer Steven McVeigh turns vigilante on them, out to give the area some Provo-style justice.
The Wee Rockets leader, Joe Phillips, senses trouble and bails, at which point the gang dynamic shifts dramatically. Taken over by a banger-wannabe with a chip on his shoulder they quickly graduate to harder drugs and more extreme acts of violence and Brennan creates a terrible velocity around their crime spree, making it seem inevitable that they will, at some point, kill. Their growing reputation brings more attention from McVeigh, who’s still gunning for Joe, dating his mother Louise in order to get close to him.
Even away from the gang Joe’s problems deepen. His dad Dermot’s back in town and looking for a reconciliation. Louise isn’t buying the reformed routine – she knows what a charming gobshite Dermot is – but she tentatively approves. A boy needs his old man, even if he is a no-good, sucker-punching drug dealer who wants Joe for an apprentice/sacrificial lamb. With the Wee Rockets out for his head too Joe has to find a way to extricate himself from the chaos, keeping his life and his liberty as both begin to look increasingly at risk.
Wee Rockets is being marketed as a hardboiled crime novel and it works perfectly as one – Brennan knows his skank as well as any writer around right now – but it’s packaged like a YA book and from the first page I thought it felt like the kind of dark, urban grit that literate 11- to 14-year-olds would love. This is their world after all and Brennan has gone into it very sympathetically, saying ‘this is just what you have to do to survive.’ I think a lot of teenagers would respect that position while his adult readership might have forgotten the truth of it.
Brennan impressed me hugely with his debut novella The Point and Wee Rockets has cemented my opinion that he belongs among the top rank of Northern Irish crime writers. He has a strong, recognisable voice, which sounds like a throwaway compliment but is actually very rare. How many writers could you identify from reading a single page? Not many. Brennan is unmistakable though. His characters are unpleasantly authentic, his dialogue script-ready and his plotting tighter than a marching drum.