Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Michael Patrick MacDonald's "Easter Rising": Book Review

This brisk sequel to "All Souls" (also reviewed by me recently on Amazon) concentrates more on the writer himself, whereas the earlier book explained his family of ten siblings (nine surviving but three to die tragically as young men and a sister in a coma) in South Boston. I found lots that sounded familiar. The tour when he first saw the Clash was the same one I went to, and my first "real" concert too. He conveys the culture clash also, as Mikey Dread's patois reminds Mike of his grandfather's Kerry-accented chatter. He learns about English culture and European ideas through the then small alternative music papers and song lyrics guide him into Camus and Marx. His education, as a dropout from prestigious Boston Latin, takes him into a vividly described underground scene, as the cachet of hanging out in clubs and shops leads him into the NYC squats and speed. I'm not sure how or if he manages to attend classes to completion at UMass-- this decision barely gets an aside. Mostly, Mike appears drawn to the same flirtation with the dangers that mark his family and his neighborhood. Finally, the darkness of his own family, after mental illness, bank robbery, and sudden trauma claim his siblings, snaps him back.

However, there's no easy escape from Southie. The narrative tends to jump forward, and without the previous book, you'd have a hard time filling in the gaps. However, after Mike's accounts of punk, hanging out, and getting out of the Old Colony before succumbing to it, the story leaps to London, where he sees the sights on the cheap, and then two trips to Ireland. The first is to Donegal, and while the inside dust jacket promises "two healing journeys to Ireland that are unlike anything in Irish American literature," there's only a familiar, if well-observed, story of the strange intimacy many returning Yanks have. The woman who gives you a lift, figures out in her head you're her fourth (or fifth) cousin, then drops you off with a casual farewell as if this proved but an everyday occurrence on a rural back road. The crowds with women who all look like one's grandmother, and the faces that finally mirror your own. The 'green jumper' that all 'big fellas' from America supposedly stand out by as they tramp and gawk among the bemused natives. And, for Mike, the racial undertones that link the Irish to blacks as surely as they have separated them in his hometown.

The coda, as it were, finds himself at thirty-two accompanying his braying Ma as she in her "Irish whisper" plays the accordion to tunes denouncing the Black and Tans and praising the IRA in the streets of London, complains over her headphones about the English, and generally making a spectacle of herself in the manner that readers of "All Souls" will smile at again. Yet, when she sees her father's cottage in Kerry, her son notes her change. Deeper voice, bent back, slower gait. In the ruins of her ancestral house, she finds her mother's cauldron and the shards of what had furnished the cabin. "Standing next to the dusty heap on the floor, I looked at the perfectly preserved picture of the Sacred Family hanging above the fireplace, with a banner that read BLESS THIS HOME. It was the one intact thing in a house that was in ruins. I couldn't take my eyes off it." (241)

As in the first memoir, MacDonald tends to underplay such dramatic moments in favor of unadorned storytelling. I'm not sure if the audience which longs for shamrockery will take to Mike's more sober tales. This narrative moves efficiently, and MacDonald does not call attention to himself or his woe so much as place it in contexts-- of the club scene, of the pub milieu, and of the psychological devastation that takes him in and out of counselling, hospitals and therapy to ease his aching head. These encounters with the academic and then medical establishment do not, as you might expect, pit a rebel hero against an uncaring system in McMurphy vs. The Combine stereotypical countercultural conflict, but Mike learns self-reliance and gradual acceptance of his own power to overcome the demons that attack so many around him.

Somehow, this manages to be one of the few recent books about Irish sold in America that lacks a paean from Frank McCourt, although his brother's quote graced the back hardcover of "All Souls" and may this in paperback. Whereas the first book evidently took time, this one may have been hastened by the four writer's retreats that he acknowledges, and funded by his screenplay for "All Souls" that's been optioned.


Anonymous said...

It's CACHET not caché

"as the caché of hanging out in clubs and shops leads him into the NYC squats and speed."

Fionnchú said...

I stand corrected, anonymously so!