Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Trevor Byrne's "Ghosts & Lightning": Book Review

This "spirited" shaggy-dog tale takes its time. Storytelling's central, even if episodes wander genially. Denny's a nonchalant narrator, conveying drug-dealing, score-setting, and a gradual coming-of-age-- however delayed-- on downscale Dublin's fringes. Denny drifts, estranged from his home where his brother charges the rest of the family rent after the death of their mother.

His home turf of Clondalkin, once a pretty village, gets sucked into Dublin's "giant smoky gob." Heritage dwindles. The Salmon of Knowledge of Irish myth converts into Fishsticks. The Hellfire Club site in the mountains south of the city conjures up a history of those who wondered the same thoughts about what lies beyond, Denny and his mates, while wandering, find.

A Neil Jordan film, pro wrestling videos, "The Simpsons," and PlayStations serve as memory for Denny's generation. Perhaps this is a sort of sequel to Roddy Doyle's "Paddy Clarke, Ha, Ha, Ha," as suburban sameness surrounds the fields and chokes off the "gyppo" camps and caravans; compare Paul Murray's "Skippy Dies" (see my review) for another recent take on growing up with drugs and drama, old rambles and new dangers, on the fringes of expanding Dublin.

The conflict between the travellers and the settled folk's not one over age-old prejudice, but a cocaine shipment that's been stolen; Byrne's Denny navigates a newer Irish society that replace traditional sources of tension. More multicultural, more multiculturally criminal? His sister's a lesbian with a Dublin-born black partner, and antagonisms flare in one scene that is drawn, as is a boxing match and a revenge on a pair of horse-killers, powerfully. But beneath the violence, the toll of being on the drink and dole darkens these lives.

A loss of meaning sinks in for him and his friends, as they fear ghosts and lightning, both of which "cast no shadow, man!" They try to figure out where his mother went after her demise. While the beginning of the novel seems to set up more development than transpires about the supernatural, early on, a night convention of the curious conjures up effectively the mystery by simply including ellipses as it transcribes the report of a seance.

In today's Ireland, Catholicism dwindles, but pagan echoes of ancient figures such as Emer and Cúchullain, Maeve and Fionn endure in the landscape and the tales told, at least haltingly by their descendants. "I wish we lived in ancient f[--] times, so I could worship the sun or the moon or somethin...somethin that's actually there, actually worth-[f--]-while." (194) His pal, Pajo, mixes football coaches with a wobbly Buddhism in his insistence upon an alternative to "sufferin and that, yeh know like?" Denny searches too, and finds his own redemption.

Byrne seeks to add his own folklore, mixing the city full of chain stores and bustle with a clear backwards glance. Very late in the novel, at a Donegal wake, Denny watches the father of the deceased maneuver around the mourners at the pub. "He nods at us and walks back over to the bar, where the priest and his brandy and the two God groupies are standin. The priest pats Mr Cassidy on the shoulder and the two oulwans look up at him and shake their heads, two pious vultures, their eyes filled with gleeful sorrow." (295)

The plot does not drive this casually told novel, but the moods linger. Without show, Byrne sums up the condition of a lower-class single mother with a hopeless man for her child's father in one sentence: "Bernadette taps her cigarette into a Bob the Builder mug." (68) Later, Denny idly watches as a "young woman with a red scarf scurries from her garden and across the green, her hands in her pockets and her head down, like somethin from a Christmas card." (167)

Characteristic wit and sharp barbs attributed to Dubliners are rarer here than in novels by his peers, but Byrne gets a couple in about a character's ex-girlfriend. "She'd a head like a melted wheelie bin," and "the f[--] tide wouldn't take Sarah Jones out."

Transitions from intimacy to indifference also lurk, as Dublin expands and Clondalkin dissolves. Mrs. Kinsella opens up a cornershop that soon will close, thanks to the supermarket down the road coming in as Dublin keeps expanding northwards. On his way to Donegal very early one morning, Denny stops in to buy milk and make small talk, although he has not done so for a long time. As he leaves, she winks at him: "--God, I'd better hurry up and sort the milk before the ravening hordes bate the doors down, she says, the wind drivin the rain across the gravel in the empty yard." (274)

This novel holds such quiet moments, for all of its vigorous speech and vehement sparring. Byrne appears modest in his ambitions, and the novel tends to roam rather than move forward. But, in this lateral rather than linear movement, Denny and his mates evoke an Irish need not to hurry. They resist the pressures of the modern world even as they glory in its pop culture. Family, friends, and fields still matter more than materialism.

For, the story itself remains: "There has to be meanin. It's not just all f[--]in... like... evolution or wharrever. Cells and impulses. There's got to be stories as well. This happened and then this happened. And it all meant this." (234) A tale about Down's syndrome so warped that it deserves to be twice-told, another of a white monkey, a third recounting a dream of bloody footprints: dream-like and silly anecdotes enrich these pages. In them, readers may look beyond Celtic Tiger stereotypes to glimpse an evanescent, but enduring, Ireland. (Posted to Amazon US 11-4-10 & 11-5-10. To be revised for The New York Review of Books.)

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