Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Peter Murphy's "The River and Enoch O'Reilly": Book Review

Steeped in Southern Gothic as much as boggy Ireland, Peter Murphy's debut novel, John the Revelator, introduced Ballo, a harbor beset with rain. Nearby, the town of Murn finds nine of its inhabitants drowned after a massive deluge. It seems that Enoch O'Reilly's conjurations may be to blame. What possesses him to lash out, as a preacher turned Elvis impersonator, lurks within this tale.

A music journalist (no connection with this reviewer or the singer from Bauhaus), Murphy's immersion in Nick Cave and Cormac McCarthy shows as he burrows into rural muck. The graveyard lingers. "Your parents might deny you the facts of life, but never the facts of death. They teach you by example and suddenly they disappear off the face of the earth or they rot away in hospital wards tended by sad-eyed country nurses. Yes, our parents die and teach us to die in return." (15) 

Murphy's prickly, haunted protagonist, akin to Hazel Motes in Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood, preaches a church without Christ. Expelled (understandably) from a seminary--where he'd been driven to proclaim his disbelief after hearing as a child a fearsome message emanating from his father's radio, claiming to be an apocalyptic voice from the Holy Ghost counting down the days until "giants on the earth and rivers of blood"--Enoch meets Alice. On the banks of the River Rua, they recall the legend of Fionn MacCumhaill and the Salmon of Knowledge. Again, "his mind crackles as if picking up transmission from some cosmic source," myth again (55).

The novel shifts past Enoch. Wounded in the Korean war, Enoch's father, radio operator Frank, had a terrifying revelation of nine men descending as if into a diving bell, a cave, a river. Now, bits of their stories, elliptically and suggestively, gain retelling by the omniscient narrator. Psychiatrist Charles Stafford, Alice's father and Frank's friend, enters soon this charged atmosphere of Murn, full of premonitions, as does a vignette from at least one victim who will be drowned there years later.

In 1983, Enoch returns to Murn 'to manifest his destiny." (96) He tells of how he got tattooed with D-E-V-I-L on his left and E-L-V-I-S on his right hand the night he learned in Tennessee of the King's death. He vows to dress in black as a mourner, although his claims to an American sojourn linger as suspect. Freed of the "pesky domesticities that eat away at a great man's sanity," (93) he stays in the Rua Hotel and lands an revival hour of the oldies to air on Murn's station.

This intersects with Marconi's concept of "eternal soundwaves" which impels both O'Reillys to brave radio's portal into monitoring every "aural emission" from the past. The Rua had flooded when Enoch was born; he predicts another flood in late 1984. This foreshadowing brings notoriety in the form of Enoch's fulminations against fornication. His breakthrough broadcast the "Revival Hour Abortion Special is subsequently described by a doesn't-half-fancy reporter from Hot Press magazine as 'an act of Situationist art terrorism'." (134)  Various local misfits, among them Enoch, skulk.

As the recurring flood threatens, in Enoch's warning, to rise as it may have since Paleolithic times, Stafford muses it may be our "planet attempting to abort us." (174)  Before he vanished years before. Frank heard "riverish" as the Rua tried to speak to him; Enoch thunders to villagers that evangelism carries its own tidings, as by broadcasting he "plays God's trumpet." Meanwhile, in that tense autumn of 1984, Enoch's mother dies. She had told her son that the earth has its own bubbles, same as its waters. Alice goes crazy and vanishes too. Her father wanders the highways bereft. Tales broadcast as the floodtime nears grow fevered.

"Little children, keep yourselves from idols" is all Enoch tells Murn, from John's gospel, as the flood looms. On the fated Halloween, "the river is coming into her time" issues as a meteorologic forecast. We learn of the nine and their names, in the foredrawn conclusion. Samhain and salmon, Celtic river gods and eerie fragments of a legacy of riparian revenge or repetition may peep about and peer back.

Little suspense survives, from a narrative circling back to its start, outside of this memorial stone's list. It's a chronicle of deaths foretold, and so as myth repeated may succeed more than as fiction you lose yourself in. Predetermined and more symbolic than realistic in its severe style for all its hints at forlorn lyricism, Peter Murphy's novel rather than delve into character too deeply or plot too widely prefers to channel, as he had in his first novel, a path into fecund and fearsome ground, beneath the deceptively firm ground of his fragile creatures. (Titled "Shall We Gather at the River" in Britain. Amazon US 9-10-13)

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