Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Frank Delaney's "The Last Storyteller": Book Review

This historical and romantic trilogy concludes when Ben McCarthy returns to Ireland. In 1956, his homeland still's mired in its "adolescence," mostly independent but unable to free itself as easily from a powerful Church and corrupt political dynasty as it hoped for. Meanwhile, the remnants of the I.R.A. prepare to resume another futile campaign to free the North, as Ben becomes entangled with a dashing gunrunner, and then finds himself the unwanted recipient of close attention by the Irish police.

After the derring-do in WWII Belgium and the picaresque American stint that comprised "The Matchmaker of Kenmare," Frank Delaney shifts back to somewhat more assured ground where "Venetia Kelly's Traveling Show" began Ben's adventures and love with that title character. His search for her continues as it has the first two installments, and Delaney crafts this again as a narrative aimed at explaining Ben's life's quest to his children. This connects with the theme of storytelling which accounts for the title.

Ben learns how his employment gathering folktales for the Irish state's archives prepares him for his calling. Late in this saga, he hears from his mentor: "Mythology is the emotional history of a society, the historical record." Delaney, a skilled teller of tales ("Legends of the Celts" is a fine collection), brings a few ancient ones into this novel's pages. Ben finds how the stories of Malachy McCool and Emer the blacksmith's daughter and then Finn, Diarmuid, and Grainne foreshadow his own encounters and predicaments. Delaney as well as Ben knows not to weigh this motif too heavily, but it makes for a fine thread within a similarly meandering plot.

As with his previous two novels, this one will wander about. It's natural for Ben to do this, but at times the drive slackens before surprises and plot turns resume. Delaney channels his story with assurance, but this does not need to be, I reckon, as extended as it is. All the same, Delaney settles into his own often spirited recital. The tone can be old-fashioned (as are the book jackets, determined to blur the harsher realities within the pages that clash with idealized Ireland) but I liked the scenes of a mentor's passing away and a sudden flood's arrival. Ben possesses insights that any reader can relate to, and he's a flawed, but idealistic character to root for. Telling stories to heal, as Ben will find when he re-creates his own quest into a myth he can tell as a storyteller himself, enables him to become an "archetype" and "a vital cog in Man's spiritual machinery." His mentor serves in a long line of Irish forebears who explain who we are, "and who have done so since God was an infant."

Delaney provides his protagonist with a convincing presence. Older, so more low-key. This shift from the earlier volumes' pace is necessary, even if languors result that slow the book. As Ben sums up Chaucer, he can be "rambunctious" and "boring," as with any of us tale-tellers. I read Roddy Doyle's "The Last Roundup" trilogy before this volume, and Henry Smart's saga (see my reviews of "A Star Called Henry," "Oh, Play That Thing!" and "The Dead Republic") overlaps: I.R.A. skulduggery, American entertainment, re-entering postwar, dreary Ireland. However, Henry's less likable a teller than Ben; the noir style of Doyle's acidic view on Ireland is softened, if not blunted, by Delaney's more humanistic nature towards their homeland's flaws.

While this has its predictable ups and downs and coincidences (same as Doyle: even if Ireland's smaller than America, it's amazing how some people find each other!), it serves as a thoughtful end to a half-century or so of pursuing a lost love and a mysterious presence. Delaney nods more than Doyle to mainstream appeal, but the struggle of Ben and his family to find out the truth about Venetia (the first volume must be read before this; the second--as with Doyle's three novels--need not) should win followers eager to follow Ben's long itinerary. (Amazon US 2-7-12)

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