Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Bob Quinn's "Smokey Hollow":Review

I admire Bob Quinn for his imaginative "Atlantean Irish" thesis from his documentary film and book of the same title (see review here & on Amazon), but the recently discovered fact he grew up not far from my relatives made me want to read his "fictional memoir." I found nearly nothing about the surrounding district, however; this memoir focuses on the eponymous stretch of houses along the River Dodder.

Published before Peter Sheridan's "44," Brendan O'Carroll's "The Mammy," or especially Frank McCourt's "Angela's Ashes" cornered the market for males telling of hardscrabble Irish cityscapes and childhood hijinks, this emerges nonetheless from a harsher time that Quinn neither downplays or harps upon. His style is sparer, with less lyricism. He notes that he began this as autobiography before using his imagination to help narrate the story better.

Read better as vignettes of his formative years 1939-53, as the cover blurb elegantly phrases it, in a housing estate on the edge of the more respectable south Dublin neighborhood of Rathgar: "Here flocks of children learned to shepherd their fantasies through the narrow gap between anarchy and rigid parental rule." The stories he tells have the flavor of honest recollections of many of his mid-20c generation, and they may lose much of their resonance on the page rather than in speech, I reckon. The book captured me more for its details in passing than the strength of its whole storyline, but Quinn appears to wish to avoid a neatly drawn recountingn of his fragmentary recollections. Therefore, the book to me was better a store of memories to be shared rather than a focused and possibly more aesthetically pleasing but less accurate recapitulation of his honest emotions and mundane doings.

I respect Quinn's motives, even as I compare his more austere phrasing to the richer, if stagier tone of his contemporary memorialists. His eye is more akin to the camera's detachment, framed by an alert consciousness and a calculating sense of space and depth. You can see why he excelled in film. The book may be less appealing for its subtlety than the brasher, more theatrical tone of later such works in the 90s, but two fine passages stand out. The first reminds me of Flann O'Brien's mordant ear.

His father ("Mr. Toner") insists against the subtle pleas of the boy narrator that plain food and lots of exercise-- the unspoken subtext being the large family's straitened circumstances exacerbated by the wartime shortages-- suffice for his brood. "Look at dogs. They have only one meal a day. Have you ever seen a sick dog?

-- Yes, and you can tell they're sick 'cause they have a dry nose.
-- Ah, but that's only because some fool has given them sweets or something. If we could live like dogs we'd be much healthier.
--They get the mange and die at twelve, muttered Joe.
--That's seventy in human terms, corrected Mr. Toner. And even then they can still chase cats. Can you see your grandfather chasing cats?
--He wouldn't be that much of an eejit.
--That's not the point. Your Mammy and I are perfectly satisfied that you get plenty to eat. Anything else is sheer greed." (56)

Most of the narrative does not rise to such sublime heights, but each reader should find his or her own delights according to taste. Here's a more serious passage; like the other autobiographical- meets- storytelling (are there any other kinds for first-person tales?) accounts, we find maturity jostling against innocence that only seems less informed due to nostalgia.

"There was no television to provide surrogate drama, to supply images of alternative realities, however banal, to the inescapable opinions, judgements and presence of parents and in-laws. Theirs was the children's only reality. Their tensions too. The experience of the cinema was too infrequent to mediate its illusions. It only served as an occasional escape from reality." (62)

Quinn, as a noted writer and especially documentary filmmaker, challenged the establishment in his later work. While this book ends well before his own entry into manhood, you can see in representative sections such as that last quoted his own wish, as his preface explains, to convey to his children as they watched James Bond on TV, of the utter difference between his childhood and theirs. As a maker of the contemporary Irish sensibility by his own media contributions, but as a memorializer of the grit and grace of an earlier Ireland, he allows a fair depiction of truth, how he and his family survived in an era narrower in its escapes from reality but for all that more enriched in the tactics necessary for imaginative power.

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