High Dive

High Dive

by Jonathan Lee
High Dive

High Dive

by Jonathan Lee



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In September 1984, a bomb was planted at the Grand Hotel in the seaside town of Brighton, England, set to explode in twenty-four days when the British prime minister and her entire cabinet would be staying there. High Dive not only takes us inside this audacious assassination attempt—a decisive act of violence on the world stage—but also imagines its way into a group of unforgettable characters. Nimbly weaving together fact and fiction, comedy and tragedy, the story switches among the perspectives of Dan, a young IRA explosives expert; Moose, a former star athlete gone to seed, who is now the deputy hotel manager; and Freya, his teenage daughter, trying to decide what comes after high school. Over the course of a mere four weeks, as the prime minister’s arrival draws closer, each of their lives will be transformed forever.  

A bold, astonishingly intimate novel of laughter and heartbreak, High Dive is a moving portrait of clashing loyalties, guilt and regret, and how individuals become the grist of history.

From the Hardcover edition.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781101874608
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/08/2016
Sold by: Random House
Format: eBook
Pages: 336
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

JONATHAN LEE is a British writer whose recent fiction has appeared in Tin House, Granta, and Narrative, among other magazines. High Dive is his first novel to be published in the United States. He lives in Brooklyn, where he is an editor at the literary journal A Public Space and a contributing editor for Guernica.

From the Hardcover edition.

Read an Excerpt

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***

Copyright © 2016 Jonathan Lee


Dan’s first op for the Provos was in darkness, an alley off the Falls Road, half a decade before Dawson McCartland would ask him to become Roy Walsh. He was crouched with his back against a rough brick wall and a man called Colum Allen was beside him. Colum was sometimes called Hallion or Hallinan or the Welsh Saint, the last of these nicknames persisting despite his energetic claims to have no Welsh in him at all. He was tall and thin with a great vein forking up the left side of his neck. Even in the dim you could see it flickering. It moved whenever he spoke, which was always. His leg jerked up and down. Punching his palm was a frequent hobby too. Nodding his head. Biting his fingernails. Humming. Singing. Some of the many daily ways Colum relieved the pressure of being Colum.

“Predetermined is what it is.” Colum’s voice was a quick whisper. “Last time was unlucky, isn’t it? Whole season unlucky. Fuckers this season are on the ropes. Inevitable. Fuckers home in an ambulance. Been lucky. Got a destiny that’s not what they think, to be sure.”

Chance and fate, Dan had started to see, were a great pre-occupation of guys engaged in reckless deeds. He didn’t trust Colum to do a good job. Didn’t trust him to keep his mouth shut after. It was exhausting to think of all the ways he didn’t trust him and why had they been paired together? Dawson kept telling Dan he’d be able to work soon with Patrick. Kept telling him Patrick was too well known to the authorities now—couldn’t be the face of operations, only the brains, needed help. Dawson kept saying Dan and Patrick would make a great team one day, but here he was, teamed with Colum Allen, talking football.

“Agree with sacking Steiny? How could a man. How could. But a man gets no silverwear for the Celtic, his history is history, isn’t it? Fuckers got short memories is what they’ve got. Anyway—” he coughed—“this your debut, is it?”

Dan stood for a moment to grant some relief to his legs, then went back to crouching and squinting. Occasional shapes animated the gloom at the end of the alley. Occasional voices too. There was advance word of RUC raids happening here tonight. The idea was for Dan and Colum to disrupt the raids as much as possible. They had gear on the ground in two zipped bags.

Nerves. When Dan was nervous he didn’t gibber or fiddle with his hands like Colum. Instead, basic questions surfaced. Such as: What am I doing here? Or: Will I end up with a bullet in my brain? Another cool wind was picking up grit. They waited.

“Paddy’s your man, is he?”

Dan was silent. Disconcerting to think a guy as simple as Colum could have a read on your thoughts.

“Internment, was he?”

“Yeah,” Dan said. “I think so.”

“Whole year?”

“No idea.”



“Fuckers keep their secrets.”

He knew exactly how long Patrick had been interned by the Brits without trial. But he’d also learned that it was unwise to give your facts away for free. Sharing less—sometimes less than was decent—made the other person uncomfortable. In an uncomfortable silence, people gave you more of themselves. The RUC had apparently come at dawn to pick Patrick up. The whine of the Saracens, bulky six-wheeled monsters, being slipped into a low gear. A dimmed stage, dark vehicles, blackened faces, not unlike the expected scene tonight; the occasional white blotch from a Catholic paint bomb. The whole of your life in Belfast was organised around light and dark, visibility and invisibility, silence and sound, information and secrecy, the private rubbing up against the public and making you feel tired. None of this Dan said to Colum.

“Heard about your initiation,” Colum said. “Aye. The dogs. That one’s getting nice and famous. Though I expect he was only preparing Your Majesty for obstacles others might raise.”

Don’t give in, Dan thought. But he gave in. “What did you hear?”

Colum grinned and scratched his neck, staring at the ground as if it were the future. “Other option, course, is he just wanted to give you nightmares. Dawson McCartland’s nice like that. Fuckers love a good nightmare.” He clicked his fingers. “My first time? They gave me a gun and an address and that was that.”

“I won’t be doing any of that stuff.”


“House calls.”

“Ha,” Colum said, and allowed himself an unusual pause. “Demoralises the police, stiffing them at home. Shows all the other police there’s no place that’s their own to relax, they said. Hadn’t even occurred. I was even younger than you, probably. I was seventeen. So I’m realising quick I’m going to have to get a ride into an Orangies’ area. And I’m realising a certain amount of planning needs to be done for the runback, though I’ve got only a day to do it. So the day comes and I’m wearing a Rangers badge, right? Though it kills me, so it does. And I’m wearing a pair of Beatle boots I got hold of from a fat lad. And all the while they’re not telling me much about this guy I’m going to stiff or any real advice, tips if you will, but I’m used to that, aren’t I? Grandfather used to be an Ulster fiddler, a virtuoso in Donegal—really. Took an awful reddener when he forgot his music one day. None of those fiddler men would let you in on their performance practices, no way; that’s what I’m sayin’. It’s a similar thing. So anyway, I go and stiff the guy and his wife comes screaming into the hall, looking at the pool of blood. Cool as anything I was. Just did the thing and left.”

Dan nodded. “Sure.” People were always heroes in their own telling.

“Yeah,” Colum said. “It was only once I got back to my district and had my first pint that the whole thing went right up on me. Shaking all over I was. Been shaking mostly ever since.”

He had Dan’s attention now. Night clouds moved across the moon. In a brief breeze an empty can rolled towards them and Colum’s shoulders did a jump. They laughed.

A whining sound. A few thin flickers of light. Colum got up. “Here we go,” he said, newly hard in the face, oddly impressive-looking. He picked up the bags. They ran to the end of the alley.


Dan did as he was told. The black Saracens were creeping along the Falls, slow and certain. The walls flanking this section of the road were painted black, a mass redaction of the murals of Bobby Sands and other heroes. The sound of heavy boots. Foot patrols moving behind and alongside the Saracens. Even if Colum had brought his gun with him, there was no way you could see the men well enough to snipe them. All of the officers were wearing black. Anything else would have spoiled the decor.

They watched as two RUC men broke down the first door to a Catholic home. The groan of the wood giving in. Dan’s heart going hard. In the first open bag a dozen plastic bottles. Each of them was three-quarters full with white paint and water. “Quick now,” Colum said. They scrambled to unscrew five or six lids. In another bag they had waterproof sheeting tied around chunks of dry ice. They started squeaking fragments of dry ice into the open bottles of paint, screwing the lids back on. Colum slapped Dan’s face. “Quick, I said.” Running.

Out into the open road. They got alongside the Saracens, a taste of smoke in the air, a soulful adrenalin building. A woman dragged out onto the street was saying “Don’t you touch the inside of my house!” Men from the foot patrol were running into her home and another man, lank and stooped in the dim of the moon, had his hand around the woman’s mouth. Colum hurled the first bottle. The lazy grace of it in the air and the little crackle and pop as it hit bodywork and exploded. Better than when they’d rehearsed. Perfect. White paint sprawling out on the Saracen, white paint dripping and pooling. Dan hurled two bottles. His blood was swaying. Hurt to breathe. Neither exploded. He needed to throw them harder, higher. Colum was shouting “Pots and pans! Pots and pans!” without a single tremor in his voice.

Dan went to ground, grit in his elbows, and pressed more fragments of dry ice into bottles. He sprinted, the bags banging on his shoulders, and threw a bottle at an RUC man—missed—but then one of Colum’s bottles looped and the man’s uniform was half white and the man yelled, fell. Another Saracen backing up to the front door of the next Catholic home to be searched and torn apart. Another throw. Dan was screaming “Pots! Pots! Pots!” and like magic windows were opening all down the street. Colum must have lobbed another bottle high—Dan could see it coming down almost at a vertical—and paint exploded over the roof of a Saracen. A precision hit. He’d got Colum all wrong. Loved the man in this moment. Loved him. Catholic women were leaning out of windows banging pots and pans. The whole street waking up and making noise, ensuring others rose and joined. Don’t let these men rip our floorboards up. Don’t let them call our freedom fighters terrorists. Some of the women were throwing glass bottles stuffed with burning hankies towards the blotches of white, tiny bursts of fire near the targets, three and then six and then more. Other women were in the street in nighties. They were standing in the way of the Saracens and banging their pots and pans above their heads, shouting “Put the fires out if you like! Go on then!” Shouting “What’s a taste of water then? Give us a shower!” All this as Dan ran into another dark alley, the last of his bottles used up, changing into clean clothes and beginning the long jog home.

In training he tried to show that he was hungry for knowledge. There seemed to be an infinite supply. There was more artistry to violence than he’d ever expected, more technique and philosophy. Months rolled by with only paint-bomb operations. Less a war than an apprenticeship—someone finally taking him under their wing. They told him they thought his future was bright.

In a warehouse space that smelt of raw meat they taught him how to open and split a shotgun cartridge. They taught him that candle wax in the tip made it hold together on impact. Mercury in the cartridge made it more deadly. Garlic purée in the cartridge put poison in the blood. They taught him to smear axle grease on a bullet to make it fly through reinforced doors. They taught him to pack cartridges with rice to slow them down. They showed him all the things you could do with the looped brake cable of a pushbike. A knife in a body needs to be twisted upward. Bulletproof glass has a blue-green glint. If a friend’s car is stolen, call Sinn Fein on this number. If a friend’s family is persecuted, call Sinn Fein on that number. Golf courses are for golf and the storage of weapons. Some people relax by emptying magazine after magazine into oil drums, tree stumps, the tyres of abandoned cars; others prefer the cold sophistication of invention, electrics, tricks with cassette-recorder parts. You can hammer away at Semtex with a rolling pin, shifting its shape to fit a suitable space. You can do anything you like, just don’t get any on your hands. On his nineteenth and twentieth and twenty-first birthdays Dawson sent packets of cash.



Excerpted from High Dive by Jonathan Lee. Copyright © 2016 by Jonathan Lee. Excerpted by permission of Knopf. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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