My life in books: John Patrick McHugh


John Patrick McHugh is from Galway. His fiction has appeared in Winter Papers, The Tangerine, Banshee, Granta and The Stinging Fly. His debut collection of short stories, Pure Gold, is out now from New Island.

The books on your bedside?

I recently started The Brothers Karamazov - so far, so enjoyable. The Russian classics are always way more fun than their weight suggests. I have the new Bryan Washington staring at me, and Una Mannion's debut novel A Crooked Tree. I have finished Natalia Ginzburg's The Little Virtues and that is still there because I miss reading it.

The first book you remember?

Muckeen the Pig by Fergus Lyons. It is about a pig who is being brought to market to be sold and presumably slaughtered. However, the pig believes he is going to market to simply get a fancy hat and an ice-cream. I can trace a lot of my questionable humour to this book. I read the Beano religiously as a kid and I can remember anxiously waiting to get the annual summer issue - where Dennis and the gang visit far-flung places like Blackpool - on the day of its shelfing, and spending many hours thereafter giggling.

Your book of the year?

I am going to cheat, and show off: Sally Rooney's new novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You, will be my book of 2021. It is funny, it is ambitious, it is moving, it is beautifully written, and it is very now. On stuff I haven't read for this year ahead: I can't wait for Roisin Kiberd's The Disconnect - the sharpest writer with the most glorious and zippy mind. There is a rake of short story collections which I'm hugely excited for: Jo Lloyd's The Earth, Thy Great Exchequer, Ready Lies, Louise Kennedy's The End of the World Is a Cul de Sac, Deirdre Sullivan's I Want To Know That I Will Be Okay.

Your favourite literary character?

Pierre Hunter from The Driftless Area by Tom Drury. Throughout this brilliant little novel, Pierre was the best company: funny and spirited and plain odd. It was a delight to get to know him, and it is always a delight to spend time in a Drury novel. The book that changed your life?

Not sure any book has changed my life, more changed my understanding of it, but I do distinctly recall reading Joyce's 'Araby' when I was 18 and feeling like a switch had clicked deep inside me. Something in how he used language, in how he describes the sister nervously playing with her bracelet, in how he captured the way my skin glowed after playing outside for hours, was so jolting and new and thrilling. To be very grand: it felt like my first direct encounter with art.

The book you couldn't finish?

Kafka's The Trial. Not sure why, because I enjoy his short fiction. But I often find that upon returning to a book I set down, it was me that was initially in the wrong, not the book. So maybe I should chance it again.

Your Covid comfort read?

Is it a comfort read if the subject matter is quite grey and depressing? If so, then Chris Ware. I went through everything by this graphic novelist while in the first lockdown last year, when I couldn't stomach prose. I would highly recommend doing so especially if you harboured any suspicions about the "literary" merits of comics. Hilarious, desperately sad, bleakly honest.

The book you give as a present?

I think I will start handing out the books of the French writer, Annie Ernaux. Her work comes in handsome and slim editions from Fitzcarraldo: both important qualities for a gifted book. The contents are, however, as devastatingly wise and substantial as any tome.

The writer who shaped you?

Too many to name here, but Frank O'Connor was a particular influence. 'Guests of the Nation' is as good as short fiction gets. Plus, Larry is the greatest name given to a fictional child.