Thursday, April 21, 2011

Kevin Holohan's "The Brothers' Lot": Book Review

Promoted as a comic satire but often an ironic fable, Holohan’s debut excoriates the Catholic-run schools in a vaguely postwar Dublin. As a graduate of the Irish Christian Brothers’ schools there, he incorporates his own memories into the imagined re-creations of the abuse, mayhem, and foibles which characterized Irish education for most working-class boys. The Brothers, as the congregation is known in Ireland, have dwindled after their sometimes sadistic role in “industrial schools” as reformatories has become exposed in recent decades. But, as Kevin Holohan and his imaginary characters never forget, nobody in his novel’s ignorant of the fate meted out to miscreants who report on their abusers. He embeds parallels to the real-life girls who, after delivering their illegitimate babies, find themselves referred to as numbers instead of names in the Magdelene laundries, here "Jezebel's" workhouses for “Fallen Mothers”.

Such slightly exaggerated parallels speckle this story. For those familiar with Ireland, the novel’s allusions to its famine and its civil wars, alongside geographical and cultural referents, deepen with context. A playful yet wry tone resembles the satirist Flann O’Brien, as when a Fr. Mulvey, S.J. rides his bicycle into the plot. The industrial school lurks in Drumgloom; the Jezebel’s run by the Sisters of Forebearance near Dullow. Bishops of Dervish and Ossory, Cloynes and Bardgey, and Spokes and Duggery, or the place Knockpaltry-on-Fergus, sound plausible. Drimnagh’s orphanage run by the Oblates of the Impervious Heart of Herod reaches Monty Python’s heights of nomenclatural application.

This shift in names dominates the narrative. It enlivens its wit while sharpening its critique. Holohan strives to balance humor and dismay and The Brothers' Lot shows his skill. As Paul Murray in his 2010 novel [see my review] Skippy Dies did for today’s Irish secondary Catholic schools, struggling after scandals and secularism to survive as vocations dwindle and lay-teachers dominate the faculty, so Holohan does for the recent past. But then, legions of Brothers tyrannized the lot of those consigned to their care.

“Lot” in the novel works three ways. Builders seek to take over the “lot” which for the Brothers of Godly Coercion’s School for Young Boys of Meager Means has supported a towering but ramshackle edifice for a century, founded to educate the humbler students for what one teacher predicts as “the lowest levels of the Civil Service or the Electricity Supply Board or the rare Gaelic football prodigy who might get slid into a sinecure at the bank”. Its North Dublin location represents a humbler status compared to the schools for the upper classes, as their rival visitor, a Jesuit superior, conveys in his tone, “with the assurance of one accustomed to never needing the imperative mode to have his bidding done”.

The “lot” of these lowly Brothers does not escape sympathy. They come from rural backgrounds, and they are tasked with trying to re-Gaelicize with football and leather straps a rabble of Dublin lads who resist their every dull lesson. The Brothers themselves may be recruited, orphans, or all but press-ganged as teenagers, the second son or the eighth. In Ireland, these boys did not inherit the farm but could earn an education and a sort-of sinecure in a job-starved Ireland. But, sinecure means “without worry”, while these Brothers do fret. So much that with their charges and among themselves, they reveal their lack of learning, their fear at being found out as less than masterful.

They whip and beat into their pupils, their own sorry “lot”, these deadened recitals of Latin, Gaelic, or geography by rote, as they teach to the state curriculum and its own pointless tests. Holohan sends up the mangled French and Irish articulated by recalcitrant or dull-witted students, and as for the Latin, a few samples from the Hail Mary convey the lighter tone that enlivens what can be a serious story. “Et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Jesus” transforms into a classroom chorus of “Ate Benny dicked us, fucked us, dangerous Twohey jaysus”. ”Ora pro nobis peccatoribus” translates as “Oh, rat, provo peck a Tory bus” .“Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae” turns “New kettle Nora, more tits no stray”.

But communal fear lashes out against such class-based frivolity, as the Brothers and (most of) their lay-teacher colleagues conspire to suppress any rebellion. This turns, as the novel’s course enters darker moods, into a rising death count and a massive cover-up. Symbolically, as the building begins to collapse, the novel depicts the doomed imposition of a sin-free school zone. “In the small shed Mr. Hourican was busy checking for sins of thought, deed, or omission, committed alone or with others, and on the far side of the yard stood Brother Walsh with what looked like a small pair of binoculars”.

Tally sticks must be worn by students; each sin earns a notch, with beatings accrued. No one is innocent, for no human equals Christ in perfection. Kafka’s penal colony may even stir within such episodes. “Yes and no had turned into equally wrong answers no matter what the question was”. This predicament hearkens back to the punishments inflicted on Irish-speaking students forced to learn English under the Crown: “for Irish people to use them on one another was vile and sickening in a deep, disturbing way,” comments the unseen narrator, filtered indirectly in Joycean manner here via Spud Murphy, one of the few lay-teachers who listens to his students. Holohan reserves his greatest contempt for the penalties and beatings meted out by lay-teachers, as they, unlike most of the Brothers, knew better: these teachers entered and left the schools to live each day out in the real world.

This dictated piety is constructed as the Brothers, and their opportunistic Diocesan Investigator of miracles, Fr. Mulvey, seize their chance to save the lot from demolition by builders. The Brothers seek to cash in with relics after a supposed miracle witnessed by one of their more mentally feeble members occurs on the crumbling site. They hasten to credit their Order’s founder, the Venerable Saorsach O’Rahilly, whom they wish to advance to sainthood.

The Venerable Saorsach’s life, commemorated on his death day yearly in a dreadful school pageant, earns its cameo. We watch as enacted by sullen students the story of his stereotypical life. We see his pious mother’s demise after her son runs off to sea and her bag of gold meant for the leprechauns to ransom him is stolen, Saorsach’s rejection of “harlots” dressed as third-year students in old kitchen rags which “would not have tempted the most starved lothario”, and finally his “dementia and death from something that very much resembled syphilis but was referred to as a ‘fever’”.

This endless ritual, Holohan’s omniscient narrator tells, “flapped its leaden wings on the first stage of its long flight toward lunchtime”. Often, the author opts for this elevated tone, which may seem either subtly overwritten in the style of too earnest a teller or intentionally pitched for the satirical mood which Flann O’Brien favored. “Around the whole school the desultoriness of last class gasped its way toward the final bell”. The radio news with its “quotidian normality clashed horribly with the laden silence oozing out of the oratory”.

Finally, the whole building nears its end. While this escapes the realistic bounds of what might be expected on a day class is still in session when the school's been falling apart, and fatally on top of some Brothers, Holohan describes the weighty scene: “Every weakness, every crack and fissure, every stress point and loose shingle had only to will itself and it could put an end to its sorry lot of bearing witness to the daily enactment of a vision twisted and thwarted that now blighted everyone and everything in its ambit”. Meanwhile, under the tension of the Brothers who scurry for proof of their miracle, an inspection team arrived to survey the curious situation, and the growing anarchy among the students, a “big blackout”, a mass refusal to cooperate, breaks out among the boys. “Every imaginable annoyance was brought to bear in one united front of provocation”.

The novel concludes with an island-wide rebellion as the very institutions give way and their lunatic keepers turn their own incarcerated, doomed victims within the walls they have erected to lock up sinners and somehow keep out sin from infecting themselves or the rest of Ireland. It’s a metaphorical end to the story which Holohan builds up as an indictment of the Irish nation’s cynical republicanism built on a corrosive clerical power and a crony-ridden leadership which refused to honor its own ideals.

Holohan shifts his narrative, from where I expected it to settle, on Finbar Sullivan, a boy newly arrived from Cork coming in to the school. Instead of a following a conventional way into the school, through a newcomer’s eyes, the novel refuses to settle. It roams from the Brothers, to Fr. Mulvey, to the parents and--more briefly-- the inspectors and builders and bureaucrats. The shifts in tone and indirect narration via the omniscient voice may surprise those looking for a lighthearted romp. This novel, using clever dialogue and outlandish names, disguises but does not deflect its serious intentions.

It may demand closer attention, and it may force the reader to examine how everyday complicity works to poison pure intentions. This refusal to stick with one perspective characterizes the author’s approach towards a sensitive subject. To address a topic as painful as clerical abuse abetted by state collusion and lay cowardice, he opts for passages of pain alternating with those of play. The novel grows grimmer as it continues, yet Holohan’s honesty forces him, as we who read it, to question our own participation and reactions to similar situations, however obliquely conveyed, that confront us.

Upon this ethical foundation for an entertaining tale, Holohan follows a satirical tradition which questions authority, undermines cliché, and upends the social order. Reading The Brother’s Lot, I thought not only of Flann O’Brien and Kafka but of another Dubliner, Jonathan Swift. He constructed his own moral tales inflating the small and deflating the large, while working at a splendid church across the Liffey River, on the nicer side of the city. Not far from where sometime late this past century, this school of Godly Coercion is said to have risen and fallen. (Posted in shorter, censored, rewritten form to Amazon US 4-5-11 & 4-21. As above featured in RePrint 4-11-11 at PopMatters.)

P.S. The school is set on "Greater Little Werburgh St"...After I wrote this, the author noted: "Here's a little allusive tidbit that you may know already - the real Werburgh Street is near Christchurch and Swi[ft] was born on nearby Hoey St and baptized on St Werburgh's Church on Werburgh Street."

No comments: