Sunday, November 30, 2008

Gerard Donovan's "Young Irelanders": Book Review.

I've reviewed (here and at Amazon US, where this review appeared yesterday) this Galway-born, New York-based novelist's previous work: "Schopenhauer's Telescope," about a Balkan-ish standoff, in educated exchanges, between a captive and his captor; "Sunless," (aka "Doctor Salt" abroad) a dystopian take on the pharmaceutical industry set near the Great Salt Lake; and "Julius Winsome," a feral blend of Shakesperean invective and wilderness revenge. All three should be made into films. [I think of the first (which he told us in 2006 was just optioned) directed by Srdjan Dragojevic as a less scabrous "Pretty Village, Pretty Flame"; the second by Todd Haynes in "Safe" fashion; the third by Sam Raimi as with "A Simple Plan."] You can see from these three novels how broad Donovan's range can be, and in this first collection of his short fiction, thirteen Irish settings intensify rather than narrow his artistic scope. (In Britain, its title is "Country of the Grand.")

At a reading of "Julius" in Oregon about two years ago, I heard the author explain why he didn't write Irish-themed fiction; it simply did not demand his attention the way his other plots had. Still, he's been building up a solid stack of it over fifteen years. This anthology reveals Donovan's ability to hone in with his clear gaze, poetic glimpses, and delineated scrutiny upon the difficulty of relationships. Set in Salthill, Galway city, Ennis, Moycullen, and such often overlooked (save in the Jack Taylor noir series by Galwegian Ken Bruen, also all reviewed by me) hubs on or near the suburbanizing Irish western coast, these depictions concentrate less on the scenery, little on the blarney, more on the b.s., and lots on the contemporary despair.

They're linked, loosely, by themes. In "Morning Swimmers," a cuckold overhears his friends talk of his wife's affair. He spies on those he had trusted, as they "tip over like milk into tea. They swim once around the tower, bodies static but busy, insects in a toilet bowl." (20) "How Long Until" follows a man who suspects his wife; "he wondered what kept any couple together, what preserved a marriage from the people in it." (30) The writing's efficient, moving the pace along firmly yet modestly, befitting its conflicted characters. Donovan favors the guise of transparency. His characters tend to drift along, yet beneath their predicaments, time pulls them out of their shallow introversions. In "Shoplifting in the USA," the protagonist "wanted it to be true that people like me can survive, but hope can break you if you keep insisting on telling yourself the truth." (53)

This underlies the storylines. "Country of the Grand" follows a man's mid-life crisis compressed into an early evening. Married nineteen years, his wife calls him at the office: "He put the phone in his pocket without going to voicemail." (57) "By Irish Nights" reminds us of Donovan's start as a poet; this brief narrative itself unfolds as nearly a prose-poem, harnessed to the natural power beneath the man-made dominance of the island. This tug sustains itself over the much longer account of "Archeologists." At first, the struggle of the paired Neolithic excavators racing ahead of the relentless construction that bulldozes bogs appears pat, but with one's patience in the uncovering of the literary layers, deeper meaning sifts in.

"The little flakes of stone and soil could have been planets at the end of her brush, so far away they seemed," and the female archeologist cannot "bridge the gap somehow," for "those people from the past did not speak loudly enough about themselves." (100) But, she perseveres, although what she unearths unsettles. The last sentence: "They stared under the creaking wire as the brown and mute bones of the Young Irelander moved in and out of the dark." (108)

"Glass" regresses to 1974, before the boom, and reminds us of less distant-- if nearly as remote given current Irish consumerism-- struggles for survival. Fewer options then. A teenager recalls his mother's admonition. "But a lot of men would like to meet a widow who lives in a clean house. I'm going back to that pub. I'm going to meet a nice man on his holidays." (123)

The later stories explore dislocation. These drew me in less readily, but this may reflect only my own identification with the characters rather than any inherent lack of quality. A new widow finds out about her husband's secret past in "Another Life;" this story reminded me of Frank O'Connor or Seán O'Faolain in its reminders of a more domesticated, middle-class, scenario of an aging woman's loneliness. "A photograph is dated instantly by color, she once heard Paul say. But black and white is timeless." (134) For "The Summer of Birds," a shadowy presence of new immigrants parallels the creatures fed by a young girl in her mother's mysterious absence from their estate. "We lived in a suburb east of the city, another development of many that spread white houses over the green hills like spilled milk," she reflects. (148)

"The Receptionist" moves into stranger studies, of a cuckolded voyeur's unsettled presence at a Galway city hotel. His upheaval's expanded into "Harry Dietz," the longest entry here, and one that in the protagonist's mental confusion recalls the main figure trapped in "Sunless." Donovan's on to a clever idea with his transposition of Cold War-era bomb shelters with terrorist threats today, combining into Harry's flight into a Chicago subway station. Still, parts of this lengthy story drift about in verisimilitude that may not keep every reader's attention span sharp!

"New Deal" precedes this with its own violence, physical rather than mental. It's the only story with any action. The reliance on psychic rather than visceral struggle may make, after one reads story after story, less of an impact. I think, as with "Julius" and "Schopenhauer," that when Donovan enters the world of payback, his fiction does take a leap into a more immediate grasp of tension if not resolution. After the cease-fires, those crossing and recrossing the Irish border abandon slogans for robberies. "We used to kill for country, now we had something we could count." (175)

The volume concludes with "Visit." Old age comes to the narrator's parent, at a home in Mullingar, exiled in the midlands away from her home: "My mother faced west where the sky breached the uneven rooftops and the early evening light pressed the orange doors of the houses. She was smiling. Her eyes were closed and her face was calm, turned to the sun." (222)

The sun may be setting, but the peace of this last story pervades with welcome closure after the many wanderings of its earlier characters, lost and desparate, as on the outskirts of the author's transformed hometown: "Galway had spread in the last decade, gushing for miles along the roads that led to it, pink and blue neon signs, huge hotels standing alone till more business built up around them, and then the rabbit-cage houses." (32) Out of this new terrain, Donovan digs his own path.

P.S. Short Interview with Donovan at "The Short Review".

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