Belfast Telegraph

Friday 22 August 2014

The Eggman cometh

HUGO Dinsmore is a midget. Small but perfectly formed, he is the golden child of elderly parents who reigns supreme from his highchair in the kitchen until his comfortable kingdom comes tumbling down when his doting parents die in quick succession.

HUGO Dinsmore is a midget. Small but perfectly formed, he is the golden child of elderly parents who reigns supreme from his highchair in the kitchen until his comfortable kingdom comes tumbling down when his doting parents die in quick succession.

Ulster-born writer Maurice Leitch's new novel, The Eggman's Apprentice, looks at the underbelly of rural Ulster, and mixes the fantastical figures of Hugo - a miniature Alan Ladd lookalike - and his mentor the Eggman, a local gangster who is driven around in a pink Cadillac.

Little Hugo is sent to live with his brutish country relatives, who constantly mock his lack of stature and his refined ways.

But Hugo is as cunning as he's short, and steers clear of trouble, whetting his sword of retribution on his classmates and siblings.

One day, Hugo discovers he can sing. In dance halls, he reduces grown men to tears, and breaks the hearts of the local ladies.

It turns out he's a big hit with the girls, who refuse to believe a single sordid thought could find shelter in such a boyish frame.

How little they know. Hugo's delighted to be 'mothered' by these girls, who whirl him around the dancefloor while he snuggles up to their soft curves.

So life's not too bad for little Hugo Dinsmore - and then he comes to the attention of local heavy, The Eggman.

Like a lucky penny or a pair of fluffy dice, he becomes the Eggman's mascot.

Soon he's being driven to perform at grand parties and late night poker sessions.

Little Hugo has made the big time. And he's not slow to shake the County Antrim mud from his heels, and his cousins from his hair.

But while his head is in the clouds, he forgets to keep his feet firmly on the ground.

"I've always written about outsiders," says Leitch. "Here, Hugo allows me to look at the adult world below. He's always having to crane his neck to see what's going on, and it was a viewpoint I found interesting."

Leitch refuses to believe that he's created a mini monster. "Evil is 99pc your environment," he said. "Hugo may be crooked, but I love all my characters. And he had such a miserable time that you can't really blame him for what he eventually does."

At the end of the book, Hugo decides he's big enough to make his own decisions. Tired of being the Eggman's lackey, he plots a terrible retribution on the gangster - and prepares to pay the price.

Leitch's story unrolls like a movie - images of the great pink Cadillac silently swishing along the green lanes of Antrim seem made for the big screen.

"Cinema has always had a huge influence on me," he admitted. "I think anyone who grew up in the 50s and 60s will agree that to us, cinema was everything.

"So yes, I've written this as a series of movie cuts. When I'm writing, the story unravels in my head just like a film."

But unlike a movie, there's not much dialogue in the book "I'm more interested in thought processes," said Leitch. "A conversation is like a game of ping pong. Once something is said, it's done - there's nothing you can add to it.

"You can imply so much more through thoughts than you ever can through words."

Yet Leitch himself is a wonderful talker, reminiscing about his Ulster childhood, when dance halls were filled with sharp-suited young men, who donned their Zoot Suits on Sunday afternoons for a stroll around Bellvue.

He's lived in London for many years, but makes regular trips back to Belfast to catch up with friends and family.

"I still feel very connected to this place," he said. "But I've moved on now. I believe Northern Ireland is in a sort of vacuum - I always think of it as the Deep South of Ireland, with its strange characters and backwoods logic."

And many of those characters make their way onto the pages of The Eggman's Apprentice - the silent, threatening Eggman, his spivish driver, Hugo's red-knuckled cousins, and Hugo himself - the sort of person who becomes part of Ulster's folklore, like Buck Alec and his lion.

"There's a lot of wish fulfilment in this book," said Leitch. He doesn't mean he's always yearned to be a singing midget. But certainly, Hugo's adventures take him towards the fantasies of many a growing lad.

For a start, he's seduced by glamorous twin sisters, into whose bed he snuggles on Sunday afternoons.

Then he enters the world of the upper middle classes, with its wife-swapping parties and drug-fuelled orgies.

Maybe Leitch has always wanted to be the Big Man - a role which, for a time anyway, little Hugo manages to secure.

"Perhaps," he said. "But let's face it, who hasn't dreamed about being driven round in a pink Cadillac, like some sort of matinee idol, with a voice sweet enough to make grown men cry?" He remains loyal to his baby faced creation, leaving the book open for a sequel.

"I might write another novel about Hugo," he said. "I'd like to know what happens to him.

"He's only 17 at the end of this one, after all.

"Maybe I'll send him to America, to star in the movies. He'd be good at that."

And it would be a dream trip for his creator, too.

The man described as perhaps the finest Irish novelist of his generation would love to accompany his little friend into the shiny world of Hollywood. And what fun they'd have together.

The Eggman's Apprentice by Maurice Leitch is published by Secker and Warburg, price £10.

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