Sunday, January 6, 2008

Joseph O'Connor's "Redemption Falls" Book Review

Mid-Victorian melodrama, Western adventure, post-Civil War vigilantes, frontier squalor, and Irish American idolatry of escaped Fenians: these make up, in a kaleidoscopic, shape-shifting, ambitiously conveyed, and ultimately satisfying sequel to the Famine novel "Star of the Sea." O'Connor has traveled across America (see my review of his "Sweet Liberty") and captures the slightly formal, quaintly antiquated diction of 19c American journalism, poetasters, balladeers, bureaucrats, eyewitnesses, historians, and integrates these into a tale told by many voices, compiled by the nephew of one of the main characters into a sprawling chronicle. He also adds period photos, mock-ups of wanted posters, and oral history transcripts.

The summary of the plot can be found on Amazon. Here I wish to share the prose itself, which is wonderfully rendered. Samples will illustrate the range of registers adapted by O'Connor (his research can be briefly found at the end of the book-- while Con's based as he admits loosely on Thomas Francis Meagher, I also was reminded of William Smith O'Brien and the Catalpa, another famous Fenian tale). I remain, most of all, impressed by the manner in which he's allowed his muse to inspire him to enter into how people thought and spoke a century and a half ago.

Con's letter to his wife, Lucia, about Redemption Falls: "What a thing is 'called' has too much import out here: every rock they mean to christen for some moldering cadaver. Backwards-looking nincompoops, reversing into the future they hate. Better if the towns were named for letters of the alphabet. But that would satisfy none of the illiterate swine I suppose. These are brutes for whom 'A' is what you stitch on a harlot's breast, and 'B' is the bastard that stings you." (70)

The editor, Lucia's nephew, on Irish American republicanism: Con "founded a radical paper, all manifestos and denunciations, the kind of Irish journal that calls on monarchs to resign, but appears to have become bored before its fourth number appeared. There were squabbles with the staff and editorial committee, fellow revolutionists of the caucus he helped to establish-- the United Force for Gaelic Brotherhood and Freedom: a body neither unified, nor forceful, nor brotherly, only free with the insults, usually in Gaelic." (151)

More of an omniscient voice here, in Joycean style drifting into Con's mind: "This, my home: this desolate shade. Desperadoes, secessionists, dispossessed. New Ireland, Young Ireland. Copy of the old. Mountainous, empty; fueled by drink and old hatreds, a nowhere with commandingly barren scenery of the kind to which fools attach adjectives. A place about which there will forever be arguments, whose people will always know they are living in a laboratory, their talking found exotic, collected by the fossil-men, while the rest of the world, if they notice you at all, see reflections of reflections of your clichés. Only it is larger than the old one, bitterer in winter. Apart from that difference, you are home" (182-3)

Testimony of an Irish miner later made rich: "Stand outta my way and bury me decent And that's why this country wont never turn Red. Cause we come a long way to get what we got. It's me and its mine and brother dont you figure on takin it, nor ask me to share it with some hoeboy I dont know. Some vaquero layin in bed and scratchin his whatever while Im workin my plot fo his keepin and beer? Thank you, Mam, no. Shut the latch on your way. Bible tell you the meek shall inherit the earth. In Paradise maybe. Not in the West. Cause I'll draw you a line they call the hundredth parallel, and left of that, brother, the meek inherit shit." (250)

Allen Winterton, cartographer for the government, notes the lack of a complete gazetteer, and this by an Italian Jesuit "who ventured into the badlands to convert the indigenes. A fur-trapper happened on his skeleton six months afterwards, lashed to a tree, manuscript wedged betwixt its ribs. The epistle was published within the month (of course), dismayingly unproofed, & in many pirated editions. It is frightful, bloody stuff, an ecstasy of adjectival slobbering. Perhaps the killers were literary critics." (286)

A few pages later, the editor McClelland footnotes Winterton's own effusions at the terrain: "There follows a great deal more of this sort of material, in essence pointing out that the Mountain Territory is mountainous." (289)

Winterton (who can be quoted at length for O'Connor truly captures his elegant style and his stoic self-awareness) recalls a line comparing love to the constancy of a star. "But the stars are not constant. They flare out and burn up; and the entire of the momentary nothing they sparkle, live always encircled by out-and-out darkness, which encroaches, as it must, until all light fades. A star is merely an explosion seen from a great distance, and, like all distant violence, may be attributed significance. But that is all it is: a cruel event. And we poor fools pen poems about it." (302)

The omniscient voice, this time from Eliza Mooney's perspective: "A beam of cave-light, dust-filled, opaque, comes coursing through an aperture in the roof far above her and shines like a visualization of the power of God in a prayerbook intended for children." (304)

Lucia contemplates, filtered through the narrative control, her own thwarted love as she listens to honeymooners in the hotel room upstairs: "At night, you can hear the percussion of their bed. And once, as she lay in a weltering sleep, a whimper of powerless pleasure from the cathedral of their room. Raw western dawn: the silence of the Plains. She was weeping as the small death came. Everything living wants to escape the body. It is why there are poems, and stories, and songs, and drink and churches and oratorios and children. Why marriages last. Why marriages happen. Why people go on being married after love has burned away. Because we cannot be alone in the stone." (349)

Lucia, as McClelland reports the lack of later correspondence from her in light of subsequent happenings in the denouement: "Those from whom we seek mercy are sometimes not the ones who can give it, but since they are present in our lives, we ask them. An onerous burden. We see ghosts in one another. But when I picture her guiding that boy from the darkness he inhabited, I believe that life is worthwhile." (449)

The editor, in the novel's coda, emerges with hints of his own story that could earn another novel from O'Connor. Perhaps there will be another? The necessary narrative distance from the final events in the plot makes for a rather too distantly felt connection by the reader with the protagonists, given the intensity of much of the preceding 450 pages of this briskly organized but extensively detailed and absorbingly dense account. This is less a shortcoming of the book than an appropriate departure point given O'Connor's arrangement of the events, but it did leave me slightly detached instead of utterly engrossed in the climactic scenes.

This novel, in its grand scope and accurately rendered tone, recalls for me Thomas Flanagan's trilogy of Irish history 1798-1922, fictionalized similarly with many narrators and documents in "The Year of the French," "The Tenants of Time," and "The End of the Hunt." For once, the effusive blurbs by fellow Irish writers such as Frank McCourt (his is highlighted as a "red sun" that mars the evocative cover design), Colum McCann, Nuala O'Faolain, and Colm Tóibín are well earned, log-rolling though they may be. This novel deserves attention and acclaim. Like Flanagan's compilers, McClelland labors to make sense out of emotions channelled into events, and perhaps quails at such hubris. But, authors press forward, and we are the richer readers for such herculean efforts of imagination and reconstruction.

(Posted to Amazon today.)

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