By sean mcnulty
‘Now it’s jokebooks. They’re little jokebooks. Fit in your pocket. I sell them everywhere. You’ll see me selling them in your local pub, to your local barber. You’ll see me selling them in your local supermarket. I’ll help you put your groceries into shopping bags and then I’ll sell you one. You’ll see me selling them in the libraries, at petrol stations. You’ll see me selling them at sea to the fishermen. You’ll see me drifting away from a remote lighthouse on my little raft having just sold a little jokebook to the keeper. Everyone likes jokes. And these ones are sick. You can’t lose.’
Saul Flanagan, building towards transaction
There are shadowy persons among us presently, dealing in stuffs that are known to all of us in our social lives, but cloaked in the mysteries of the cosmic flow, protected by secrets known only to the peddler in the shade. These merchants are weary, the physical and psychological capacities to work their trade now assuaged by the impressions of age and the slow turning of time. They roam the lands of the world seeking their successor, the protégé worthy of schooling, who will follow them in their life’s work, and take their enterprise into future realms of earthly triumph.
Since she’d left him for an economic genius from Wexford, Saul had spent his days and nights in a pub that housed the sadness of men, the kind that written chronicles such as this can never truly capture, only provide the sketchy representation of a browbeaten cliché. Her departure from his daily matters of life had crippled him somewhat, taking from him the demeanour he had nurtured over a period of time, and stripping him down to a younger and more uncertain incarnation of himself, the guy who used to make obscene phonecalls to Dana, the winner of the Eurovision song contest for Ireland, all those years ago. She had since gone on to more venerable things, such as a host for religious shows on Catholic television in Alabama, and an anti-abortion campaigner in the European parliament. Did she ever remember Saul’s voice and the times they spent together? Probably not. As he sat in the pub nightly, he battled urges to resume those phonecalls, but he’d changed his ways, there was no getting around that.
Diarmuid usually sat closest to him at the bar, spitting the accentuated talk of the traditionally remote queen at the perplexed barman, Colin, in-between sorry attempts to flatter. Diarmuid presented a history of exaggerated existence, a life lived in the lights of colourful society, when in fact his very being told the long tale of a man working in a factory in a small town, his sexuality constantly hidden, his character permanently damaged. Diarmuid was perhaps the kindest man who drank in the pub, having funded a session for all the regulars at least once.
Saul finished his job in the bookshop in order to devote his time to drinking. The job had been an unexpected irritation; for his sins in life lived, he was quarantined to crime fiction, shelving the endless mystery. Jims, Cain, Ellroy, and Thompson had drowned long ago, were presumed lost, within a deluge of factory novels. Just as he thought he’d filled the back catalogue of one author, that author would strike back ferociously with a brand new crime novel, an altogether new case for Detective whoever. The authors were in the middle of a portfolio war, aiming to see who could write more novels, who could get their name fixed to the greatest number of spines on the shelf. And to make matters worse, quite a lot of them also wrote under pointless pseudonyms; pointless in that the proposed pseudonym followed the author’s real name on the jacket. Blood Game by Gregor Douglas writing as Margaret Akutagawa. A psychological thriller. One murder. Two personalities. One suspect. Presumably, as the novelist was writing for two people, the expected two novels a year was doubled. Saul felt that kind of carry-on gave a bad name to proliferation. He started hiding the crime books in a crack in the wall at the back of the bookshop in private protest sparking a whodunit in the store, and a case for the department manager, a hard-boiled sort, to solve.
Saul found himself in Zagreb, Croatia, two weeks after he got into a fight with another drunk in the pub over the state of the nation. Diarmuid tried to break it up and got his nose busted in, but managed to bed Saul’s opponent in the near-immediate afterwards. Saul’s friend in Croatia, Ivo, was not present to welcome him on his first day in Zagreb on account of his involvement in a car crash the night before. Saul later pushed for details of the crash, but the fully intact Ivo was judicious about how he unpacked the accident, knowing as he did Saul’s feelings towards reckless driving, and Ivo enjoyed driving recklessly. Saul had no time for those who drove on the roads like it was a Formula One competition. Whenever he heard joyriders spinning and squealing on the roads in the night, he shivered with the guilt of hoping they would crash and kill their bloody selves. It was common for him to open the paper and read about a 14 year old who had died in a stolen car accident…and to feel somewhat responsible for having secretly wished it.
Ivo’s favourite place for drinking in Zagreb was a bar called Krivi Put, which translates as The Wrong Way. Following Saul’s arrival, the Wrong Way was taken nightly, and much pivo sopped up. They usually sat outside in Krivi Put’s large enclosing courtyard that resembled rowdy gypsy camps in Saul’s imagination. Inside, the bar had a cheerfully grubby style, laid-back and inviting, and was lit delicately to augment the array of paintings, the purpose being to establish a bohemian mood. A stage lay at one end of the room to accommodate Zagreb’s community of noise-loving rock bands, a number of them working under names that contained the word Fuck. A few posters for gigs verified this. Saul was taken aback by the prices of the beers. He got a bottle of Ozujsco for 10 kuna, probably four times less than the price of a bottle of beer back home. He quickly gulped the beer down as his fellow drinkers had expected him to and slammed the bottle on to the table with the naïve joy of a man who doesn’t even know the extent of his riches.
I want to go to Ireland, said Ivo’s German friend, Franz. I tried to go last year but I was having a baby. My girlfriend is a fucking bitch, man. You have clubs?
Yes, but we call them pubs, laughed Saul. And you don’t have to be a member. Everybody’s welcome.
Sounds great, man, said Franz.
Where in Ireland are you from? asked Helene, a Viennese girl, and one of Franz’s work colleagues, who was sitting at the opposite side of the table from her boyfriend, Tomas.
I’m from Dublin, answered Saul.
Ah, We’ve been to Dublin, said Helene. We went to the Guinness storehouse. It was a lot of fun. But Tomas got in a fight.
It wasn’t a fight, said Tomas, smiling uneasily. There were just some angry words. Nothing happened.
You made a fist, responded Helene. That is good enough for me.
I will get beer, said Tomas then, standing up. Ozujsco all round?
Karlavacko for me, said Ivo.
So what is your job, Saul? asked Helene.
I worked in a bookshop for a little, replied Saul.
He was about to tell about other jobs he had, other things he had done, but the beery frolic in his system instead made him say, Before that I was a deviant. But I would never have written that down beside occupation.
Everyone laughed hard at this. Saul laughed even harder, knowing the truth of his past.
It was a warm evening, and the courtyard was full, nearly all of the bar’s clientele having moved outside to drink. Saul became aware of a strange man sitting across from them alone with a bottle of beer. He kept looking over at them, and smirking to himself, as though he knew every detail there was to know about their lives, and now found their conduct amusing in respect of this. He was wearing a lengthy black cape and an immense mohican hairstyle that he must have sharpened each day for it rose up out of his head like a long blade piercing holes in the cigarette smoke.
There is a man from Ireland in there, said Tomas, as he returned with more beers. He’s standing at the bar.
Oh? inquired Saul.
Yes, he seems pretty funny. You should speak to him. I told him that you were here and he said he would come out to us.
When the Irishman eventually joined them, it transpired that Ivo had encountered him previously, outside the Melin bar two weeks before. The man shared a drink with Ivo and his friends and then proposed to sell each of them a little jokebook for every occasion. He had them in Croatian, English, French, and Finnish. Ivo and his friend Ana agreed to purchase one each, but the other people in their company chose not to.
They never had a sense of humour between them anyway, Ivo told the man now, reflecting on the incident.
It was their privilege, my friend, said the man, who was in his forties, and wore a black leather jacket, seemingly nettle-stained, and underneath a Celtic football jersey, steadily fading. He had long black hair tied up in a pony-tail and a thick moustache and looked kind of like a Navajo Indian except for his grittily pink Irish skin.
My name’s Kenny, he told them, and raised his speech suddenly to sales arena level. I sell little jokebooks for every occasion, he continued. It’s the perfect possession for the pleaser in modern society. A little jokebook for every occasion. Be it for a dinner party, functional speech, presentation, or seduction – there’s a joke for everything, and everyone.
I bought one, said Ivo, pleased with himself. But I haven’t read any jokes yet.
Kenny was originally from Armagh, where the ugliest fish in the world where to be found, he told them, in the Blackwater river. He had been selling things since he was very small, and had continued selling things until this very instant in his life’s stretch, but it wasn’t a glamorous tale, he added.
I made selling my very own artistic endeavour, but the life of the artist isn’t all plain selling. A multitude of sacrifices.
What things did you sell other than jokebooks? asked Saul.
Oh, you name it, kiddo, replied Kenny. I began with marbles. Mad Russians, Fireballs. Then comics. Marvel, DC, 2000 AD. Pirated tapes, videos, you name it. Ugly fish also, yes, at one point. Then booze. Made a killing selling the booze to kids and itinerants. One of the kids paid me with speed one day and things bloomed prettily from there. Sold drugs for years. It near did me in. I started getting hash and later cocaine from a fierce man from Craigavon who took a fancy to my mother, so I sold him some items from her closet to establish a business linkage. I gave up the drugs after a few years and went into ladies fashion proper. Opened some shops and did very well for myself.
So why are you now selling little jokebooks in Croatia for a living? asked Saul.
You can’t win them all, kiddo. You can’t win them all.
That’s not much of a sales attitude, said Helene. Shouldn’t you be more positive? More like Win them all?
A great salesman is a great animal, quick and ruthless, but careful and determined. Modesty is the skill of the careful and determined, love. And liquidation is a fact of life for many folks. More often than not, a sad fact of life, with many miserable people left over at the end. I was so low I went around the whole of Ireland aimlessly on a bicycle. I was greeted in every town as the failed businessman on a bicycle.
Franz began to mingle, going from table to table to join in on conversations. There didn’t seem to be a person there that evening he didn’t know in some way. Except for the dark mohawked loner who was now directing flat gazes at them since Kenny arrived. Saul noticed also that Kenny appeared quietly conscious of the man’s presence, his eyes rolling over once or twice to check the stranger’s status.
Do you know that guy? Saul asked him, candidly.
Kenny’s face yellowed; then he lit a cigarette, and said, He’s trouble, that guy. Don’t mind him.
I’ve never seen him here before, said Ivo.
Oh, he’s always somewhere, said Kenny. He’s always lurking somewhere.
Saul’s intrigue was distracted for a moment by the appearance of a young woman at the entrance to the inner part of the bar. He hadn’t seen her before. She stood with two handsome men twirling an umbrella in her hand friskily; the umbrella danced happily with her as though it were a puppy dog at play with its owner. She was very beautiful, and reminded him of the reason why he now found himself in the Balkans, why he’d been frustrated and had sought exile to forget. There was a resemblance. She looked kind of like – he travelled back to the moment she left him in his mind and took note of how she looked as she told him she was leaving. Their hairstyles were similar, smooth chestnut-brown helmets that curved slightly upwards at the neck. That was the only remarkable similarity he could identify. Their profiles didn’t match other than that.
He wondered what she was doing now back in Dublin. Her daily operations flashed through his mind; her morning coffee, her driving to work, her argument with a colleague, her light lunch, her momentary job satisfaction, her ringing her economic genius from Wexford to make arrangements for this evening’s dinner, her drinks with people he had never known and never would. The loss had sparked another search in his life and sent him journeying across Europe in aimless pursuit. How many more of these searches would there be before he found what he was looking for? When a loss had occurred, a human being endeavoured to regain a certain proportion, but was blind to what was required for fulfilment. All that human being could do was wander haphazardly hoping that whatever he eventually tripped over would provide some kind of answer to contentment. Some found a stool in a pub somewhere and stuck to it, others rode around on bicycles. Most found what they were looking for by going the wrong way.
Hello Kenny, said the dark loner, who was suddenly standing at their table. I trust these good people are not interested in what you have for them.
You’re right about one thing, answered Kenny. These are good people.
The black-caped stranger was from Varazdin, but he hadn’t been home in years because he had been travelling all over selling his little jokebooks; his name was Drazen.
You sell little jokebooks too? asked Ivo. No, that must be a joke.
I sell the best jokebooks, said Drazen. They are the jokebooks of the elite. The jokebooks of the Irish have no truth. They are shit.
You’ve been led astray, Drazen, said Kenny. You’re on the dark path of the jokemonger.
It was established then that Drazen’s little jokebooks contained jokes that were not as gently humorous as those to be found in Kenny’s. Drazen belonged to a radical collective of jokebook sellers who had devised a manifesto that involved opening the portals that confined sick humour, bringing sick jokes out of their whispered slumber in society. They believed in what they were doing, it was not just a profession for them. Drazen objected not only to the blandness of the jokes in Kenny’s jokebooks, but also to the cold capitalism of his selling, his lack of belief.
Your jokes are like The Matrix, they’re not real, said Drazen. And when the people are reading them and telling them to one another, they’re unconscious things, and they don’t even know it.
You can’t read or tell a joke if you’re unconscious, retorted Kenny. That’s just…obvious.
Tomas, who had slowly moved closer to Helene, and was now scrunched up beside her as she smoked a cigarette, said, Where are these jokebooks? I want to see them.
At that, Kenny reached deep into a little holdall he had at his feet which nobody sitting at the table had once noticed him carrying. He took out three or four small red books that bore a resemblance to the little red books of Mao and cast them on to the table.
There you go, he said. Jokes of wit and substance. Dentist jokes, housewife jokes, Groucho Marx is in there. So is Oscar Wilde.
Groucho and Oscar were sick, bellowed Drazen. You’re misleading these people, choosing the jokes that don’t offend so you can keep them prisoner in the waking sleep of humanity. I will try my best to protect them from you.
With that, Drazen reached deep into a pocket on his long black robe and produced about three or four little thick black books which he threw violently on to the table making Kenny’s little red books jump to some extent in the process.
Oh, they are so small, exclaimed Helene. I mean, very tiny.
They looked like little black matchboxes.
The jokes are so sick we need to be as discreet as possible, said Drazen. You look like Monica Seles.
Me? What? said Helene.
Never mind, said Drazen. You like sick humour, woman?
I never hear sick jokes, said Helene.
You lie to yourself and to us all, replied Drazen. Why do you put a baby in a blender?
What? she asked. Soon realising it was a joke, Helene said, I don’t know.
So you can masturbate while watching it cry, said Drazen.
Tomas, Ivo, and Saul burst into laughter.
You’re sick, you bastard, said Helene.
Why did Adolf kill himself? asked Drazen.
I don’t want to know, said Helene.
Because he got his fucking gas bill, ha ha!
Tomas, Ivo, and Saul burst into laughter again. Kenny released a quiet chortle.
When Saul went to the bar inside to buy more bottles of beer, he took a look around to see if he could spot the beautiful girl he had seen earlier standing at the entrance. He couldn’t spot her, but he did see one of the handsome men she had been standing with. When he returned, Drazen was delivering a lecture on sick humour while Kenny held his head in his hands as though there was an itch on his brain and he was trying to figure out a way of getting in to scratch it.
Said Drazen, We pride ourselves on our being able to hold off on our mocking things, our tastefulness being the suspension of laughter until some unspecified time in the future when we can all agree that it’s okay to laugh at such things. But that’s just the public perception of it, the civilised way. In reality, we’re laughing and mocking from the beginning, only the jokes are whispered; the laughter is shared by two people in a corner somewhere, and they don’t let the people reading their newspapers hear. That’s the truth. All jokes are sick, really. Smeared reflections of our successes and failures. Some are just more truthful than others. Legend has it that the owls taught us how to tell sick jokes. Apparently that’s what they’re doing when they’re hooting in the trees. But I don’t know if that’s true.
Okay, I’ve had enough of this, said Kenny, standing up. I have to be going. I will leave you all to listen to this madman.
He gathered his little jokebooks together, put them in his holdall, and said goodbye to everyone, shaking each pair of hands, and even saying Good luck with it, Drazen.
Before he walked off, Kenny sent a bizarre warning in Saul’s direction. Be careful, kiddo, he said. These are the black arts.
Saul arranged to meet Drazen the next day for a coffee. The sick humour theories had interested him. They were to meet in a small café just off Jelacic square. Before he made his way to the café, Saul stood for a moment to look at the heroic statue of Jelacic in the square. It was an action statue, the muscles on Jelacic’s horse bulging to suggest motion and Jelacic himself flailing an elegantly curled sword in the air. Jelacic ordered Saul to smoke his cigarette with dignity in his presence and Saul did so in salute before making his way to the café to meet Drazen.
Saul waited an hour for Drazen to arrive, and was convinced he wouldn’t show until he marked him out amongst a crowd of shoppers in the square walking towards the café. Drazen looked so strange in the daytime amidst the other pedestrians, his mohican cutting the air to shreds above them as he walked, and his long cape flowing behind him like the rolling waves of a black ocean.
I don’t have much time, said Drazen, when he sat down. I have to go south. There are people enjoying the sunshine down there, and they sicken me. I must do something about it.
He had a large brown bag with him which he slapped down on the table as he hurled a coarse demand for coffee at a terrified waitress.
Then he said, There are maybe fifty books in this bag. I think that is enough to start you.
To start me? asked Saul. What are you talking about?
These books are in English, Drazen replied. I want you to sell them in Ireland. I have been travelling for so long. This trip south will be my last mission for the cause. All I want to do now is find a little house in Varazdin beside the river where I can sit around all day and write my life story. You’ve got the sickness in you, I could see that when I first saw you last night. You can do good things in the name of sick humour.
I can’t sell little jokebooks for a living.
Don’t think of it as selling little jokebooks. Think of yourself as a healer, a medicine man for the world, revealing the true nature of people by making them feel comfortable with how horrible they really are.
Saul experienced a feeling of liberation all of a sudden. Maybe he could sell little jokebooks for a living, or for a little while at least. He could not deny that the concept excited him, appealed to an old perversion within him. He could sense his youth returning, an ancient blood running through his body.
I’m leaving, that’s all I wanted to say to you, said Drazen, getting up without taking even a sip from his coffee. This is why you came to Zagreb. It is your destiny to distribute these sick jokes. I wish you the very best.
Then Drazen left, and Saul drank three more coffees as he read through the jokebooks, looking over his shoulder guardedly at irregular intervals.
You are American? asked the waitress, after some time.
No, Irish, said Saul.
Ah, smiled the waitress, in a pleasingly approving way. I love to read Irish authors.
Yes, very much. Do you know Paul Carson? They are thrillers set in Ireland. Some of my favourites. Not only him, but Ian Rankin.
Ian Rankin’s not Irish.
Oh, I know, but I like to read him too. I’m a big fan of detective mysteries.
Saul’s journey home was a chaotic air bound meander; he had to fly from Zagreb to Split, and then get on another plane and fly to Pula, and then get on another plane at Pula and fly from there to London, and then get a plane from London to Dublin. There were some nice views of the Croatian coastline though. His stop-off in London asked he wait around in Heathrow airport for three hours before the connecting flight to Dublin. As he was munching pancakes in the airport lounge, he was brought to notice a little woman with cropped brown hair and a long attractive cream overcoat sitting near him and acknowledged suddenly that it was Dana, the woman from Derry who won the Eurovision song contest for Ireland in 1970. He introduced himself to her, and they spoke for a long time about the current state of things everywhere. He invented a new biography for himself in her company, one marked by Christian devotion. They laughed and joked. She poured him a cup of tea from her pot. He lied about how the gospels got him through each day, and when he spoke of the various charities he was involved with, she agreed to buy one of the little pocket New Testaments he was selling, saying she would read it on the plane and say a prayer for him. Overjoyed, he celebrated her Eurovision victory, serenading her with the winning song, All Kinds of Everything, to her blushing amusement.
Saul Flanagan is a friend of mine from years back. He told me this story one evening about something that happened to him on a trip to Croatia and asked me if I could write it down some day. Well, I decided to do just that early this morning, waking to a glorious peace-flavoured sunshine and the hooting of a nearby owl.