Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Peter Murphy's "John the Revelator": Book Review

This bog-gothic coming-of-age novel moves rapidly, if obliquely, into an off-kilter portrayal of small-town Irish savagery, mystery, and unsolved goings-on. I read this story quickly, and its pace pleased me. I finished it puzzled, but this did not displease me. It's not a tidy novel, rather a dreamlike one as ordinary and ethereal, menacing and disjointed, as dreams often can combine their telling to us.

Murphy's not the Peter M. of (musical) Bauhaus fame, although his publicity photo makes him look the part. He, similarly gloomily but more wryly, intersperses the narrative told by the teen protagonist John Devine (heavy symbolism with the evangelist and his apocalyptic revelations) with stories related in speech and on the page by his new friend, the roguish Rimbaud-loving Jamey Corboy, who wanders into the misfit young man's life, under the spell of his Bible-spouting, somewhat bewitched mother, full of fables from Irish myth that threaten malfeasants with doom or at least shape-shifting. This mordant theme underlies the book, which cleverly, if perhaps too allusively for a wider audience, interprets through the doings of creator crows and persistent worms a gory, visceral, and primal scene of a restless earth's magic that thrives despite the veneer of our own time's complacency in a southwest Ireland market town.

The novel's best at the interspersed short stories Jamey writes to John. These arguably suggest Murphy's talent may lie in short fiction; the dream of the "hellavator" itself could be a novella, as that of the world's end vision John dreams. The prose sharpens too in the musical story in Morocco, and I note Murphy's background as a music journalist. As for the dialogue, as in many Irish works, it opens promisingly. John's mother Lily, asked if the book she's reading's any good, tells her son: "Too many descriptions. I know what a tree looks like." On the same page, as the wind howls and reminds them of the night of his birth: "'You were a typical boy," she muttered under her breath. 'You came early.'" (4)

Later, John's at a disco: "I felt the alcohol buzz kick in, that feeling of being surrounded by a force field, like I had the gift of temporary invincibility." (70) Losing his virginity in a car, John observes in front of the dashboard figurine: "Our bodies made slapping noises. The plastic Jesus watched it all, palms up." (161) A cuckolded lug wanders about his home disconsolately: "He was pouring stale cornflakes into a small saucepan" after a couple of days of abandonment by his gal. (182) Death's related effectively more by suggestion than exhaustion of its potential to move the reader as it has the teller. The book's last few paragraphs end the narrative beautifully with a primal image rivalling Joyce's Anna Livia, although again I'm not sure what to make of all the suggestive comparisons to earlier archetypes as the scriptural ones recede and the Celtic ones persist throughout the twisted, erratic course of this elusive array of tales.

Into this milieu, rumors of African witchcraft, demonic desecration, and everyday adultery invade Ballo town and Kilcody village. I wasn't clear often what exactly was going on in the narrative. While sparely and vividly told, the details don't seem to add up to a cohesive, linear novel. However, somehow I'm sure Murphy meant it this way; its meandering madness within an outwardly complacent context reminded me not only of the earlier, better work of Pat McCabe ("The Butcher Boy") but also Roddy Doyle's "Paddy Clarke", Ardal O'Hanlon's "Knick Knack, Paddywhack," Patrick McGinley's "Bogmail" and "Foggage," and Jamie O'Neill's curious if little known fiction "Kilbrack". These all, in turn, nod to Flann O'Brien and perhaps Beckett in parts for their send-ups of conversation and quirk, reliable standbys for the Hibernian storyteller of strange doings behind closed doors pried open by nosy neighbors and corrupt criminals. As with such predecessors, your confidence as a reader who can figure out every motive amidst the stubbornly illogical course of events may be undermined, and this may be to your delight or your frustration.

(Review posted to Amazon US 6/23/09. 6/24: Happy Feast of St John if the Baptist and not the Evangelist. Lord knows as I do well how common a name this is or was, even among those of us less sainted. So's Murphy, come to think of it!)

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