Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Frank Delaney's "Venetia Kelly's Traveling Show": Book Review

How do legends emerge out of truth, myth from fact? Ben MacCarthy in a Year of Destiny, the election of 1932 as Fascist Blueshirts menace Ireland's uneasy democratic shifts, finds his young life's love. He must also grow up fast, gain revenge, rescue his family, and learn awful lessons. Delaney tells this in a narrative that convinces by its digressions, and teaches by its hard-won insistence not on stoic rejection, but profound understanding.

"I know that, at the end of it all, I did some remarkable things, far beyond the reach of a man of my age." (50) At eighteen, Ben must quickly come to maturity, as a detective of sorts, and as a sudden husband barely off the farm as he wanders Ireland in the company of a group of dramatic players. That his father has run off, preceding him, is only the first in a series of surprises, and shocks. He plunges into the saga of the Kellys, of whose scion King early we find: "His full name, Thomas Aquinas Kelly, was a comic misnomer. The only moral inquirers this man ever made had to do with money-- the inside track, the shortcut, the influence, the bribe, the pull, the means, typically foul, of getting what he wanted. He came out of the womb a criminal." (18)

This passage typifies Delaney's style. He conveys an old man looking way back to seek answers, but he keeps the verve of a young man's hopes leavened by a maturer fellow's rueful, worldly-wiser, philosophy. The book moves in and out of digressions as Ben seeks to puzzle out what happened in '32, and along the way a reader will learn about Irish politics, storytelling, and mores. When Ben makes his big move, the young man from the provinces going off to seek his fortune, or take back his family's small share of such, he admits his boldness and his foolhardiness in equal measure: "I was feeling the safety that's embodied in commitment, no matter how heartbreaking it may be." (268) It's a coming of age story in a time when the young Irish Republic comes of age.

There's far less about the Blueshirts themselves than I had expected, but then, they were a small movement with perhaps not much of an ideology to go on about at length anyhow, as Delaney seems to imply. The funhouse, satirical atmosphere of the traveling show fades as the novel goes on and the show gains some Shakespearean class. Cameos as the man in the leprechaun hat running for office and the ventriloquized Blarney (whose eloquence from the mouth of Venetia to me remains a mystery on one disturbing level which perhaps is as it should be, to keep its power over an audience member such as me) will reward the persevering reader.

Real-life sidles in, in a small detail such as Kalem Studios coming to make silent films in Ireland, or large one as in Eamon de Valera's uncanny hold over his admirers and detractors. Between the famous and the obscure, the nation being a small one, Ben will wander much of it as he tries to follow his own calling, and to figure out his own place in an island where feuds and memories cannot stay buried long. Don't expect an exhaustive travelogue even if Ben roams much of the Republic; it's more of what you'd hear from a man who sees his homeland but may also have been worn out by it, for in his travels he went more out of necessity than choice. Having visited myself many of the places in the Limerick-Tipperary rural stretches where most of this action occurs, this often overlooked terrain does gain its own dignified presence, but it lingers as backdrop, as a native lives with it, not a tourist, so the descriptions ring as more sparing and less rapturous in fitting tone.

The minor characters may stay so, and some of the major ones lurk long offstage after all are brought on in the first seventy pages, but like a dramatic show, the director will have reasons for bringing them off and on as the play goes on. The pace may seem rather unexpected, but as Ben himself strives to put together again what happened in 1932 at a far remove, the scattered elements begin, as best as he can reassemble them, to come together-- to a point, which is the whole novel's point. Free of cliche, and mercifully absent of many stereotypical figures that appear to infest market-town Irish vignettes even today, Delaney intersperses via folklorist James Clare a flavor of richer narratives, drawn from the elusive well at the world's end where ordinary folks enter extraordinary derring-do.

My dog-eared copy of his "Legends of the Celts" attests to Delaney's skill at enriching a modern account with mythic undertones without being too obvious or too oblique, and when reading this novel, I was reminded of how events over the years warp and fade. Ben warns early on: "Of the principal characters in this drama, I alone remain alive." He hopes to be proven wrong, however, and as he promises, the rambling and complicated story that he tells, no matter its twists and turns, winds up a rather compact comeuppance tale at its darker heart.

Late in its unfolding, we learn of its titular character her acting ability shines as she can hold back to draw the audience into her performance. Holding back, we come to appreciate as this ambitious novel reaches its climax, pulls the reader into Delaney's evocation of how family greed and young dreams clash and tear apart those caught in this year when "the tension in the country at that time" resembled "those photographs at night, when the camera's flash turns the neon into streaks and colored streamers. No wonder we all went a little mad." (105) (Posted to Amazon US 2-23-10)

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