HEY, , Freak — still on hunger strike? — So starts A Lonely Note, the story of Tariq, a teenage Iraqi boy living in the states, who is bullied for being different.
It’s a tough life. His parents can’t relate to him; and when his favourite uncle dies, he feels more dislocated than ever.
His closest friend is a Jewish girl called Rachel, but she is powerless to stop the mounting violence against him.
Tariq’s one escape is music. Playing the clarinet he moves into the sublime world of jazz; and, seeking a recording of John Coltrane, he meets Jamal; an embittered Veteran from the Iraqi War.
Jamal has problems of his own; and it’s through helping his friend, and ultimately saving his enemy, that Tariq finds redemption.
This powerful book reads with such authenticity that it’s a shock to discover that the author is an Irish American Catholic. How did he get all the detail right?
“I did a lot of research,” says Kevin, when we meet in Dublin.
“But I was careful that the book did not wear it on its sleeve. You don’t need huge depth, but you do need an eye for detail, and you need to choose the details that carry resonance. That, to me, is important.
“It was vital, I felt, to include the funeral, and describe the burial rites. Tariq’s relationship with his uncle is a link to that world, and those scenes humanise Tariq’s father as well. He loved his brother; he is not just a bully.”
In many ways, though, the book reflects Kevin’s own life, and his experience of growing up in America.
“I only realised this in retrospect. But this book is as much about Catholicism in my own upbringing as it is about Islam in the West.”
Born in Ireland, Kevin moved to the states in 1958.
“My father is American; my mother Irish. We had an Irish catholic childhood. Priests were the heroes and women wore scarves in church.
"During Easter week we went to church on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. We did the stations of the cross, and we said the rosary at night.
“I didn’t know anyone else who said the rosary. My parents didn’t bully me as Tariq’s did; but I was always caught between the 60s American culture which was very liberating in some ways, and the Catholic culture I grew up with. I like big city life, and I lived in a small undeveloped, conservative town in Montana.
“I felt at odds with it. I was interested in music and literature. I had liberal politics and none of these things went down well. So between Catholicism and feeling different I understood Tariq. That, combined with my research helped me to get inside his head.”
Montana was the home of the nuclear bomb.
“When I was a kid, every Friday at noon the local siren went off. We had a little preparation for D day. We crawled under our desks, as if that would help, or went down to the basement.
"There was real fear, especially at the time of the Cuba Crisis. I was six, but my mother has since told me that they really thought World War Three was imminent.”
In the early 70s , Kevin’s mother convinced his father to move back to Ireland. His father, a writer, taught English at University College Galway, but Kevin chose to study at University College Dublin. He was there at an inspirational time.
“Colm Tóibín was in the year ahead of me. He was the president of the Literature Society which I attended every week.
"Dave Fanning was there, and Richard Kearney and the late Gerry McNamara. Frank McGuinness was a friend of mine.”
In 1980 the author returned to the States, and disengaged from the Irish scene. He went into publishing and developed an American lifestyle, but now that his four children have grown up and left home, he and his wife move between Boston, and their house in Blackrock, Co Dublin.
“We try and spend from January to April in Ireland, if we can,” he says.
This is Kevin’s seventh novel. He has written for adults, and also teenagers and children, and when Tariq first appeared in his mind, he assumed this book would be for teenagers. Then more adult themes started to appear.
This raised a conundrum. Kevin had written books for the editor Siobhán Parkinson, of Little Island. The press publishes fiction for children and young adults, yet Kevin was keen to work with her again.
“I gave it to her, explaining that it wasn’t a teen book. She read it and was bowled over by it. She said, ‘This is the best book you have written. I would love to publish it.’
"The board agreed she could publish an adult book, and they employed a publicist. I’m delighted. It’s the best of both worlds.”
There are many themes running through A Lonely Note, but the most important one, the author says, is that of tolerance.
“There is so much misunderstanding about Islam. And there is a tendency in America to overreact. 9/11 changed things utterly. It was one of those moments like Pearl Harbour.
"Things afterwards were completely different, because America does not get attacked on its on soil often.”
Kevin worries about the paranoia around Islam.
“People that worry about Islam should remember that people had similar fears about Catholicism for decades. It’s a ridiculous fear. Most Muslims just want to practise their religion and blend in.
My parents had a mixed marriage. My father’s Presbyterian family had a huge anti-catholic bias, and when John F Kennedy was elected it was a big issue for them.
“That is the message of the book. These are ordinary people, and by invading Iraq, Americans have to take on a lot of responsibility. They created the dislocation, and it’s our responsibility to meet people half way.”
A few years ago Kevin was coming out of the London Underground at dusk, and out of the corner of his eye saw someone in a burka. Then he looked again, and realised it was a nun in her habit.
“I grew up with nuns. All my teachers from first to eighth grade were nuns, and some in high school too. They are familiar to me, yet in a full habit, you only see part of their face.
It’s not that different from a burka yet we see that as a strange and terrible thing.”
Kevin works for an E learning company that does a lot of training with corporations. Also a journalist, he writes about literature and jazz. He would never write full-time.
“I couldn’t do that,” he says.
“I have to engage with the world. Besides, I like having money. It means that I don’t have to write for a living and I don’t have to do something to make money. I can write what I want to write.
It’s liberating. For me, writing is all about getting the right subject, and developing feelings for the story. You have to be like a musician. You have to feel it, or it won’t work.”