Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Joseph O'Connor's "The Salesman": Book Review.

"When you looked for Ireland on the weather map in my father's News of the World, the Republic would actually be missing; all you would see is Northern Ireland, an island now, floating a few miles off the Mull of Kintyre. I lived in a place that did not exist." (33)
So narrates Billy Sweeney of his working-class youth, until the Beatles came to Dublin, he fell in love, and he thought he'd live happily ever after. He does not. His wife leaves him and takes his two daughters; one of them is in a coma. Three of her assailants are convicted, one jumps bail. Billy hunts the fugitive, Donal Quinn, down. He tells what happens next to his daughter, Maeve, who lies comatose in the hospital, in case she awakens one day to read his diary.

"There are times in every life, I think, when the things you have fantasized about are suddenly on the point of coming true, depending on the action you take or do not take, depending on the range of your choices. And those are very dangerous times." (58) He's driven to hunt Quinn down by simple revenge. O'Connor-- as in his later 19th c. Irish American historical epics, both told with verve and erudition from a multiple narrative and fractured assemblage of documents, songs, oral history, and images, "Redemption Falls" (reviewed by me here and on Amazon US) and "Star of the Sea"-- loves relating everyday speech, long-simmering hatreds, and feuds that erode relationships, choking out like weeds the roses that once struggled to blossom in love's garden.

As with his other fictional counterparts in those two later novels, Billy detests the slow and fumbling process of justice by the law. "Did you ever hear of a more stupid unnatural thing in your life than turning the other cheek?" (73) His marriage gets mired in Irish patterns of resignation and incrimination. "Thinking that things would get better somehow had replaced hurling as the national sport in Ireland around that time, and after a while your mother and I got to be champions."(114)

Billy drinks, his wife sulks, and the inevitable happens. "Anyone who has been in a dying marriage-- and I suppose that is what ours was by then-- knows that not putting words on unhappiness is the moral equivalent of leaving the lights out so you cannot see the monsters coming." (141) In a passage that reminded me of Joyce in its indirect first-person voice of delicacy and reticence, they do, years later within their estrangement, attempt one moment of reconciliation.

"We went upstairs and into our old bedroom where we took off some of our clothes and kissed again for a while. After a time she asked me to turn off the light and I did. In the darkness I could hear her removing the rest of her clothes. She asked me to do the same. We embraced for a few moments, I was trembling. She asked if I anyone else had been in this bed with me and I said no, nobody had, which was the truth. We slid under the sheets together and made love very gently. I remember-- and you may as well know this too, love-- that afterwards we just lay in the dark, holding each other for a long time and crying." (188-89)

Such intimacy battles in this novel with wry demotic, drawn from south County Dublin. "'There wouldn't be the power in that shit-heap to power your mott's dildo,' he said." (91) Milkman Nap critiques his van. "'She'd eat the leg of the Lamb of God, wouldn't you sweetheart?'" (88) Billy's wife, Grace, muses about her baby, Lizzie. "Back in the car I got the handcuffs out of the box and tried them on. They were fine. They had a little pink fake-fur lining on them, 'for comfort', the instructions explained." (163) Billy prepares to kidnap Quinn. "She'd peel a fuckin' orange without takin' it out of her pocket, Mr Sweeney, and that's the gospel truth." (224) A Dalkey publican confides about his wife.

The novel does go on for too long. I understand the arc that O'Connor constructs. It's ambitious, and belies the dull title. There's almost no depth as to the work that Billy does, the sales he makes being all but absent. These omissions may be intentional, but they may discourage an audience given the bland "Salesman" as the come-on to what combines an (sub)urban thriller with a failed love story or two. I stayed up turning its pages, wondering how he'd resolve the storyline. Yet, all of my citations have been drawn nearly from the first half, prior to the abduction of Quinn and the hunter-becomes-the-hunted plot that ensues. Another Amazon reviewer liked the book until it got "all Tarantino." These portions, if perhaps a bit tediously, do, however, convey in graphic and truly unsettling terms what it's like to suffer, to have your life turned utterly unrecognizable, and to give and take violence in its elemental brutality.

They are also, if you push on into the final chapters, followed by further plot complications. While I found some of these less plausible or at least more mundane than much of the earlier force of this often scarifying book, this effort merits attention by those readers, like me, wanting to seek out previous fiction after enjoying "Star" and its sequel, "Redemption." Redeeming one's self certainly plays a crucial role here for both Billy and his antagonists, domesticated or untamed.

Sweeney finds his salvation after nearly going mad among his suburban aviary. O'Connor does not draw parallels directly between this 12th c. Irish tale "Buile Shuibne" ("Frenzy of Sweeney," translated by Seamus Heaney in 1983 as "Sweeney Astray") let alone the Flann O'Brien episodes in "At Swim-Two-Birds," but perhaps the ornithological allusions and the Dalkey setting prove subtle if telling enough?

No comments: