When Karl Parkinson’s first novel, The Blocks, was published in 2018, he was described as the first major contemporary writer to emerge from Dublin’s corporation blocks. The Blocks was a fictionalised, visionary-poetic portrait of the young artist growing up in the O’Devaney Gardens social housing complex near Stoneybatter, which has since been demolished and is currently undergoing redevelopment. The novel shows narrator Kenny overcome a series of harrowing experiences on his path to becoming a poet and musician: it is overall an uplifting story.

Surprisingly, for a debut book from a small publisher, it was widely reviewed in the national media and attracted critical acclaim. Reviewers appreciated the redemptive story arc and Parkinson’s unique mix of social realism, fantasy, and poetry, all rendered in phonetic inner-city Dublin dialect.

Karl Parkinson’s second book of fiction (he has also published three books of poetry) is a short story collection. The Grind appeared in 2022, but unlike the novel, it was overlooked by the mainstream media. Apart from an author interview in the Irish Times shortly before publication, not a single publication has covered the book. With this review, I hope to draw attention to this compelling story collection, which might otherwise escape notice. But I also want to think about why the book has been neglected—and how working-class fiction is received within the Irish cultural landscape.

Though Parkinson’s works are often hailed as giving a voice to Dublin’s proletariat, he is clear that he is not attempting to represent any generalised working class. In interview, he talks about wanting to get away from characters who are alter egos of himself and specifically write about the lives of those who make the headlines only when they die. He has written that he felt compelled to write a book set in an ‘environment that breeds the nihilistic violence of mostly young or middle-aged men who according to the CSO make up 80 per cent of all homicides in Ireland’, or, as he terms it elsewhere, ‘the violent underclass’. This is a fuzzily defined but immediately recognisable demographic signalled by the iconography of the corporation blocks; a stigmatised sub-category of the Dublin accent; and an association with drug dealing and petty crime. The Grind features the stories of a young drug dealer, a one-punch manslaughter, and a martial arts competitor determined to live a moral life, offering unflinching depictions of domestic abuse and addiction, descents into nihilism, prison cell confessionals, and rare moments of terrible beauty.

In recent years this so-called ‘violent underclass’ has been more frequently portrayed on our television screens than in fiction, with TV series such as Love/Hate, Kin, or, most recently, Dublin Narcos. Media scholar Marcus Free has argued that these television dramas tend to reductively conflate working class life with a ‘lumpen proletarian’ existence of drug abuse, criminality and social welfare dependency — and indeed, representatives of Dublin’s traditionally working class neighbourhoods have raised concerns that shows like Love/Hate depict their communities in a bad light.

Many readers will be familiar with the swathe of prejudices against this demographic, whether on the receiving or the dispensing end. Where I grew up, in the less posh end of Drumcondra, my friends’ dads were respectively a barman, brickie, plumber, and security guard. What they all had in common was that they had moved to the city from the country decades before—and that they had a near racist-level disdain of people from ‘the rough parts’ of Dublin, particularly the many corporation flats around the city centre. Parkinson’s collection show us that the term ‘working class’ is of limited use in understanding the extreme prejudices that fracture Dublin. The characters in The Grind inhabit a world that is severed from the rest of the city socially, but also physically — just as the O’Devaney Gardens complex was surrounded by high walls and had only two access routes, a design consciously intended to isolate it from the surrounding middle-class neighbourhood.

The Grind brings together eleven stories interspersed with shorter experimental interludes. The longest piece is ‘Butterfly Hook’, which portrays a disciplined and righteous cage fighter with ambitions to better himself. Parkinson blows apart any preconceptions readers might have of a love story involving a cage fighter who first encounters his beloved in a nightclub. The protagonist is portrayed in Homeric terms, with zero irony: ‘He was ready to do what the gods and his daemon demanded of him.’ His encounter with the young woman is similarly rhapsodised: ‘she was a potent and intoxicating drink, a movement of tensile desire flowed through him, his core got caught up in the splendid dream of her dance.’ We’ve had twenty-four centuries of self-examination since the Bible’s erotic poem, the Song of Solomon; this foray into the temple of body worship comes across as a kind of literary equivalent of naïve art. Rather than using a sociological lens to depict his characters, Parkinson takes a mythological, visionary, at times even biblical approach. It’s a style he has dubbed ‘social magical realism’, and it is on show throughout this story, even when the narrative takes a darker turn.

‘Tit For Tat’ is one of the few pieces that stays firmly within a realist mode as an ensemble cast narrative of a gangland feud that culminates in a bloody shooting. In much fiction and TV drama, characters from the criminal underworld seem designed to supply thrills, to plunge the complacent reader’s nose into the harsh side of life, or perhaps to give a naturalistic account of how deprivation leads to a life of crime. But in Parkinson’s hands, these characters are players in a morality tale. They are impulsive and selfish in all sorts of ways, and we get a sense—here and in the collection as a whole—that life is a struggle to overcome the baser impulses of human nature. Parkinson’s work is less an explicit endeavour to depict the underprivileged and more an attempt to present a mythically charged vision of life as a struggle between the good and evil within.

In these fictions, explicit concepts of marginalisation, discrimination, and left-wing politics don’t come into play. His protagonists don’t see themselves as victims and rarely think about how their world has come to be the way it is. Characters are compared to ancient warriors or animals or find themselves in the grip of demonic forces. This creates a mythic resonance — one that can come across as fatalistic in its seeming acceptance of the established order of the world, yet is finally oddly dignifying.

Despite the magical and mythical dimensions of these stories, the social reality of drug-taking, domestic violence, and neglected filthy stairwells can feel like it’s pressing in on you, immersing you in a world of limited horizons. In one story, Tommo, who is in the autumn years of a hard life, recalls what to him were the best of times: ‘if I could be anywhere at any time I’d be there now in duh block, standin there with me mates, drinkin a flagon of cider, plannin to rob a car.’

‘Break Up, Break Down’ is one of the grimmest pieces, although brilliantly accomplished. The story is a descending chord sequence through one man’s downfall—he loses his job and his girlfriend, and his ambitions narrow to zero. In contrast to most of the characters in this book, our protagonist Eoin exhibits a fierce, inchoate, right-wing contempt for drug users and the unemployed. On hearing of the death of a neighbour, Eoin calls him ‘an aul wino […] costin duh state and taxpayers money […] slobberin on and on’. The story is propelled to a harrowing ending where self-hatred turns inside-out, moving towards a universal contempt for life.

Perhaps bleakest of all is ‘The Artist’. ‘In school miss Hickey the art teacher encouraged him to do something with his talent, go to college and study fine art’, it begins. Coming in stoned to school soon puts an end to such notions. Now it’s not unusual for an artist to have an origin story involving drug abuse and time on the dole. But for young Eoin there are no safety nets, and no support or understanding of what he’s trying to achieve. When he comes to a tragic end, an unknown friend paints a mural to commemorate him. His mother, out of a sense of modesty perhaps, asks for it to be painted over. There’s a Chekhovian tenor to this stark, concise tale. Here, more so than anywhere else in the book, we become intensely aware that we are in an environment where aspirations are crushed and there are no second chances.

Throughout The Grind, lyrical passages punctuate the dark subject matter. In some, the narrative voice ascends to become a kind of Greek chorus, offering commentary: ‘Dean Baker, lost child, mad youth, the outlord of liberalism strutted through all of it out of sync with its order, its vision and its meaning, like the last of some gang of malcontent miscreants of the grime and grind of the flats of Dublin…’

The seven shorter interludes in the book give Parkinson free rein for experimental exuberance, and remind us that he first made his reputation as a poet. ‘Bullet Brain’ (the title is a nod to Tobias Wolff’s famous story) is a stream-of-consciousness telling of the long seconds after the narrator is shot in the head. ‘Wotdidduhfoolexpectmetodo’, it begins. Another short piece, ‘The City Wakes / The Grind Begins’ is a landscape portrait of the city waking to a new day.

Perhaps aware of the accreting mood of despondency in the collection, Parkinson ends with two rather upbeat stories. The final piece offers a warm-hearted scene of the older generation in the blocks sharing a moment of repartee and cans of beer. In some ways, it comes across as feeble consolation in the face of the crushed lives depicted just a few pages before. The penultimate story, though, stands out. It features a visual artist who has managed to achieve a degree of success; he indulges in the odd dab of cocaine and accepts the opportunities for casual sex his minor fame brings (‘yuh might have seen me on TV on the news, or on that art show late at night on RTE 2’ he tells a waitress). The story’s ending, though, suggests its protagonist has a compelling artistic vision, one which, we hope, will carry him forward to greater works.

Irish fiction doesn’t often visit the neighbourhoods where The Grind ventures. In Michael Pierse’s introduction to A History of Irish Working-Class Writing, the only new twenty-first century writers he mentions are Karl Parkinson and Frankie Gaffney, whose 2015 novel Dublin Seven chronicles a young man’s rise to become a cocaine dealer. There are of course many others, including June Caldwell, Fiona Scarlett, Lisa McInerney, Kevin Barry, and Dave Lordan. Even the meaning of the term ‘Irish working class’ is constantly shifting: Eddie Conlon describes the need to encompass ‘increasing gender and ethnic diversity’ in the definition of working-class Ireland, and Paul McVeigh discusses ‘the differences between inner-city working-class life and its rural cousin’. But as Pierse points out in his essay in The 32: An Anthology of Irish Working-Class Voices, writers from working-class backgrounds still face significant barriers to publishing and are underrepresented in the literary industry. And fiction by writers who have grown up in inner-city social housing—Parkinson’s demographic—is rarer still. There’s a contrast here with the poetry and music scene, where such voices are, quite literally, more commonly heard.

Sensationalised TV dramas may seem to have cornered the mainstream market for depictions of the Dublin underclass Karl Parkinson writes about. But his underrated story collection provides a different window into this world, with stories that portray nihilistic violence and addiction as universal themes, best grasped through visionary poetry and myth.