Thursday, October 31, 2013

Ag tiomáint ar ais Cathair na Áingeal aríst

Is maith a fheiceáil Naomh Proinsias; chonaic mé aríst an Oifig na Phoist Rincon leis múrmhaisiú stairiúl agus an Músaem Iarnróid beag in aice leis an Foirngneamh Farantóireacht don chead uair ó 2007. Ghlac mé siúlóid breá ann sios Sráideannaí Margaidh agus Misean le linn mó sos lóin ag an chomhdháil.

Fhág Léna agus mé Naomh Prionsias riamh, ach ní raibh muid ag dul go direach ó dheas tri Gleann na Sileachain marbhánta. D'aontaigh muid go dtí Naomh Crios ar bealach Chuan na Gealaí Leath an-álainn. Bhi turasóirí go leor ansin, mar sin go raibh muid ag piocadh puimcín riomh Samhain. (P.S. Oiche Shamhna shona daoibh)

Chuir cuairt muid stop chomh minic i tSwanton. Fás na sútha talún orgánachaí is fearr ann. Bíonn an-feothan in aice na Aigéan Ciúin farraige; thiomáint suas agus ag níos mó na Bonny Doon go dtí Felton seo chugainn. 

Fhan muid leis ár chairde Bob agus Crios in aice leis Naomh Crios mar is gnách. Labhairt mé leis Bob faoi Auden agus Yeats ar feadh tamaill. Breathnaigh muid an chlár deireadh den "Briseadh Dona" ar cheile agus ith sméar píog.

Chaith muid ag imeacht abhaile ar moch ar maidin sin, ar leath naoi anuas aríst. Tairiscint againn slán chun ar slógh. Chuaigh tri Naomh Crios go Prunedale, Salinas, Paso Robles, Santa Barbara, agus Oxnard. Fhilleadh muid ar ais "Bialann ar fad."

D'ól mé leanna leis seagail ó Ventura in aice láimhe. Ith mé pizza bán. Ansin, d'imigh muid go dtí ár bhaile, ag fáilte a chur roimh ag beagnach sé ar an chlog ár madraí agus cait.

Driving back to Los Angeles again.

I like to see San Francisco; I saw again the Rincon Post Office with historical murals and the little Railway Museum near the Ferry Building for the first time since 2007. I took a fine walk down Market and Mission Streets during my lunch break at the conference.

After, Layne and I left San Francisco, but we did not want to go straight south through dull Silicon Valley. We agreed to go to Santa Cruz by way of lovelier Half Moon Bay. There were many tourists there, because they were picking pumpkins before Halloween. (P.S. Happy Halloween to you all.)

We paid a stop as often at Swanton. The best organic strawberries grow there. It is usually very breezy near the beautiful Pacific ocean; we drove up and over Bonny Doon to Felton next.

We stayed with our friends Bob and Chris near Santa Cruz as usual. I spoke with Bob a while about Auden and Yeats. We watched the finale of "Breaking Bad" together and we ate berry pie.

We had to leave early the next morning, half past nine again. We bid farewell to our hosts. We went through Santa Cruz to Prunedale, Salinas, Santa Barbara, and Oxnard. We returned to Whole Foods.

I drank a rye ale from Ventura nearby there. I ate white pizza. Then, we left to go home, to welcome at nearly six o'clock our dogs and cats. (Feirm/ Swanton Berry Farm: Photo/Grianghraf)

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

J. P. Mallory's "The Origins of the Irish": Book Review

Combining archeology with linguistics, adding genetics to explain the connections between these two fields, this expert in Indo-European Studies turns to his homeland to wonder how its earliest inhabitants wound up on this North Atlantic island. With attention to demystification but with an affection for the myths, J. P. Mallory builds on nearly a half-century of his research to present an academic study that anybody curious about his title will welcome. Learned but lively, Mallory's contribution remains throughout cautious in its surmises but diligent in his analyses.

He begins about as far back as the Big Bang, if in passing. Much of the first hundred pages explain how recently Ireland (and Britain, always its fractious or friendly neighbor) split off from the Continent--itself long in the making as the tectonic plates shifted slowly. Two parts of Ireland at one time faced each other, if from a distance as far apart as Australia from the island today.

After the last Ice Age, the land bridge between northwest France and Ireland cannot be firmly dated, but it broke apart over 12,000-10,000 years ago. That means whomever settled as what Mallory calls the "Irelanders"--prior to the relatively recent national formation of the "Irish" under Niall of the Nine Hostages, the first figure straddling legendary and historical times and allegedly the kidnapper of Calpurnius' Romano-Briton son to be known as Patrick--had to migrate into that thawed-out expanse after the melting glaciers filled the Irish Sea.

For only 1/43,000th of its existence as a land mass has Ireland occupied its present site and shape. Poorer in flora and fauna than Britain or the Continent, it could not have supported many prehistoric families. As few as 3,000 people may have lived in Ireland for the first 40% of its existence as we know it. Recently settled in Eurasian terms, colonists may have voyaged from the nearby Isle of Man as global warming wiped out part of that territory. Generally, Mallory favors looking closest--to the western Scottish and Welsh shores for those who would populate Ireland first.

As for farming, around 3800 BCE marks a revolution in agriculture. It may have spread rapidly, within two hundred years, and again probably westward from a British base. Brittany at the tip of today's France may have contributed, as the longer sea passages navigated back and forth in turn may have stimulated Irish-British trade all the more.

Any archeological treatment of Northern Europe debates the origins and provenance of the Beakers, the pottery goblets with a bell-like shape. Suffice to say Mallory delves into this with gusto and wit, no small feat for what can be deadly dull material for those of us outside the trenches. He loves citing his more imaginative predecessors to telling effect about the romantic interpretations of sherds and grooves. "Drink, fighting and the Irish Sweepstakes would certainly tally with Irish stereotypes," he comments as he surveys the eagerness of his gullible colleagues to imagine (ca. 2500 BCE) brutal invaders, tipsy warriors, and horse-drawn shock and awe descending upon cowering scrabblers.

Metallurgy ushers in the Bronze and Iron Ages, and the siting of dramatic hillforts may show cultural shifts for population changes and ritual behaviors at this time.  While Mallory downplays the exotic or martial, he notes how, given hoards found, Continental foreigners could have visited or stayed.  He consistently edges away from a scenario of invasion (despite the Irish legends and their "nine waves" of conquerors) to one of gradual diffusion of goods and contacts. Ironically, Niall's own inheritance centuries later would signal the end of this mythical time, as a cult from Southwest Asia and the customs and language of a dying empire would transform Ireland into the "Irish," whose legacy would be distorted by Christian interpretations of what has come to be known as a "Celtic" past.

Earlier than often assumed, by those celebrating Patrick's freedom from Niall's enslavement and his return to Ireland to convert its "pagan" natives, Roman influence entered Ireland as it had Patrick's homeland, wherever it was across the Irish Sea. In fact, perhaps by way of earlier slaves than that fabled missionary to the Hibernians in 432, Christians lived on the island; a bishop was sent there the year before Patrick to minister to that flock. Niall and his ilk engaged in an active sea-slave trade.

Mallory shows that while a pre-Christian Roman presence left a fraction of what imperial centuries of occupation over Britain had, nonetheless Irish evidence for Roman trade and settlement can be marshaled. From the classical reports of Ptolemy and the Romanized variations on the savage British and Irish tribes and places, we get the first glimpse into what "civilization" regarded as Hibernia, a damp backward dump on the world's edge. "Why the Romans or indeed anyone else should have wanted to come to Ireland is a mystery if the early classical descriptions of the island had provided copy for Roman travel brochures", Mallory remarks with typical flair. 

We also owe the classical historians another label, if an elusive one. They named the diverse peoples across Europe speaking similar languages as Celts. Mallory follows Kim McCone in matching this to a root meaning of "hidden" and therefore "offspring of the hidden one," identifying this allusion with the lord of the dead, Donn, the "dark brown one."

Speaking of enduring identifiers, generations looked south to Spain (anywhere but east!) for Irish origins, but this Latin confusion does not fool Mallory. He dismisses origin myths as modeled by monks on the biblical wanderings of the Jews. He also blames the Wikipedia equivalent of the 7th century, Isidore's Etymologies, with this persistent but false derivation of supposedly adjacent Hibernians from venerable Iberians.

Deepening his application of language, the latter third of Mallory's study finds him tackling the spread of the Celtic tongue into Ireland. These final hundred pages pack a tremendous amount of data--DNA as well as glottochronology--into a few chapters. Microliths give way to haplotypes.

He leaves us with two possibilities about the spread of Proto-Irish during the first millennium BCE. Mallory posits social prestige and identification with trend setters as likely explanations for a native adoption of a Celtic language. He suggests that an initial impact around 1000 BCE is one of two "most likely" windows of opportunity, in tandem with the emergence of hillforts. The second may be around the 3rd century BCE as Tara and other highly visible "ritual enclosures" dominated the landscape and consolidated a mental perspective that would endure as the "Irish" looked around in Niall's pivotal era to adapt the four provinces circling around a fifth center as their nation's model.

This valuable book does not leap from a petri dish or a soggy excavation to any bold conclusion. This Belfast-based professor knows his subject all too well to trust in what genetic findings from next year's lab or carbon dating from this season's dig may override. Mallory relies on commonsense and judicial balancing of the more fervid proposals of his colleagues. The Origins of the Irish serves as a trustworthy. eminently scholarly but accessible guide past tricky diversions and evasive directions. (PopMatters 4-1-13 + 4-2-13 Amazon US)

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Manchán Magan's "Oddballs: A Novel of Affections": Review

A skilled chronicler in travel narratives and documentaries of those who wander the fringes, Manchán Magan's debut novel follows four characters on the fringe. Two of them, teenaged Rachel and her quasi-aunt Charlotte, collide after a long estrangement in New Hampshire, and take off on Charlotte's Wiccan pilgrimage to ye olde England of, as a bemused or bitter Rachel puts it, "Merlin and Voldemort." After a few detours, they wind up on a quasi-borrowed yacht that lands them off Co. Kerry. There, in the village of Reek, they meet Colm and Dónal, two brothers with their own tension. 

Magan, as a bilingual writer and observer of the Irish-language communities, sprinkles sentences of Gaeilge in to show the divide between the elderly and the youth, as English supplants the fading speech of the home, school, and church. He touches lightly on the gap, but he pins down the malaise that afflicts natives such as Colm and Dónal. For the former, unstable mentally, he cannot fit in to the small space where he avoids interactions with his neighbors. He yearns for release. Watching a crayfish pot bob, it mimics him. "It was caught in a loop now, and kept going back and forth, clanging each time until the thin batons of the hazel basket were in pieces and only the lead-grey buoy remained." (20) 

For the latter, he resents having to sing for his supper "to play the happy leprechaun for dimwit tourists" at the "jigs and reels show" at the local pub. He reflects at dawn as he looks over the ascetic expanse, the empty valley around Reek, down on soaked German campers. "To them it was idyllic, a haven from their fraught lives; to him it was a rope, a slowly tightening noose." (111) 

Into the brothers' eccentric or scant routines respectively, Rachel and Charlotte stumble ashore. Rachel, a "cutter" after the death of her boyfriend Nathaniel, broods. Carving out his name below her navel, another joins it above. "God had hurt the most as there was less flesh there." (36) Hobbled by an injury during her college track career, she finds herself unhappily tethered to Charlotte, who has her own troubled past to contend with. A determined witch, she suspects other women to share her purported powers, and she bristles at the conspiracy of maternal silence and patriarchal pain around her. As she warns Rachel whom she regards as a sister practitioner: "It's why we're all addicted to makeup now, we want to hide the blemishes." (79)

Magan, no stranger given his journalism to introverted paths less traveled, sharpens his wit and quickens the pace once he sets what starts off as a slow tale into motion, after Rachel and Charlotte cross the ocean. "Sagely take heed and remove your noises from our seas, we plead." So channels the girl assuming the oracular medium as Charlotte and Rachel get drawn within an English New Age circle. "I am of the council of dolphin breath, honoured to be invited to share amongst you this day." (100-101) 

I expected much more of such satire, but this novel unfolds through a kitten's funeral, a cliffside revelation, and encounters of mutual recognition, into a more poignant depiction of marginal people. As Charlotte realizes: "There had to be a Canada in the realms beyond; every universe needs its Canada." (234) That is, a place for spiritual liberation, a border to cross into a place less heavy for those among us so frail. Speaking of frontiers, a few clunky non-Americanisms for his American pair's speech aside, and a few typos, detract little from the grace that increasingly infuses a lightly sketched tale about darker, incised moods, and the possibility of gradual, dogged renewal. 

(Slugger O'Toole, and a bit altered to Amazon US 5-4-13. See under blog keyword Manchán Magan for my other reviews of Magan's Truck Fever (Africa), Angels and Rabies (Americas) and Manchan's Travels (India); his eponymous site is linked under my blog roll.)

Friday, October 25, 2013

Diarmait Mac Giolla Chriost's "Jailteacht": Book Review

“Jailic” developed among political prisoners in the North; on their release, a “Jailtacht” radicalised community groups in the 1980s, shifted republicans towards political accommodation in the 1990s, and commodified a stretch of today’s West Belfast for “struggle tourism”. Dr. Diarmait Mac Giolla Chríost grew up in Derry City. He acquired Irish during the 1980s at QUB − followed by a “self-exile” into the Welsh-speaking heartland that earned him a Readership in that language at the University of Wales. He knows intimately that “symbolic terrain” where Celtic cultural claims to political independence reverberate as personal recovery of native tongues. 
He combines engagement with distance. The combination of the two standpoints leads him to analyse Irish as “the defining symbolic element of the political violence that has shaped the history of Northern Ireland and, to a great extent, the relationship between the UK and the Republic of Ireland”. By interviews with ex-prisoners, he explains Jailic’s acquisition, its use as formulaic “language strings”, and its sociological impacts. Graffiti and mural depictions, along with archival and online research, demonstrate his diligence. (I appear among those “ordinary cybercitizens” documented who address Jailic in a “public space”.) 
Historical contexts precede chapters respectively on close readings for stylistics; the “performativity” of managing incarceration, creating social identities, and building a “sense of place”; signs and murals as “visual grammar”; and  ideology in the “grey literature” produced by republicans − and loyalists. 
He locates the emergence of “Jailtacht” not in Long Kesh’s cages of the early 1970s but in the mid-1980s, after the 1976 reversal of political to criminal status among republicans incarcerated — when “Jailic” itself was coined. After the hunger strikes, prisoners circumvented an Irish ban. Blanket protesters on a wing shouted out phrases at set times of day, with varying levels of fluency. Gearóid Mac Siacais recalls: “Thosaigh an Ghaeilge ar bhonn slándála agus chríochnaigh sé mar theanga labharta na blocanna.” (“The Irish language started as a basis for security but ended up as the spoken language of the Blocks.”) This transformation in the late 1970s, over eighteen months, enabled Irish to be spoken by three hundred rather than the seven or eight inmates who had carried the language into the H-Blocks from the Cages.
Some cellmates may have been less eager, but spoken (or shouted) Irish dominated. Texts were smuggled in (and out); nails scraped lessons into concrete. Prisoners deployed Irish against “criminalization”. A post-strike lull in fluency was countered by an intensive six-week course smuggled in by Máirtín Ó Muilleoir. By the late 1980s, constant Irish infiltrated his dreams, Séanna Walsh confides. 
Mac Giolla Chríost delineates usage. As argot, tokens as catch phrases peppered English speech. As a medium for deeper communication, Jailic’s divergence from Gaelic norms − given limited or no opportunities for formal education − evolved into “rough, natural accents” and rote idioms acquired by repetition rather than effort. The “comms” shared in the blanket protests and hunger strikes, as well as texts by Bobby Sands, Gerry Adams and comrades, display orthographic and articulated distinctions from, or similarities to, Irish outside prison. By the mid-1990s, the imprisonment of republicans schooled in Irish, as well as access to external materials, signaled a “fossilization” of Jailic as markers of its diction and pronunciation persisted among its freed inmates. This spread into poetry, plays, and films about the Gaeltacht na Fuiseoige, the Irish-speaking community of the Lark, in honor of Bobby Sands’ pen-name.
Performance of Irish forced a congenial space within prison. Filthy walls filled with scrawled vocabulary, while the Jailtacht encouraged collegial teaching of the language, rather than student-pupil hierarchies. 

The Gaelicisation of given names (as with Sands) proves an intriguing case study in how diligently and imaginatively prisoners and activists adopted or adapted identities to further ideological commitments.
These, in turn, gained proclamation, frequently in the Gaelic font, on murals, as street names, and in signs. These appeared within the Shaw’s Road Belfast emerging Gaeltacht, and as daubed slogans or graffiti elsewhere in that city or Derry. Monuments to the fallen, banners in demonstrations, and paintings asserting solidarity by the incorporation of Basque, Arabic, or Catalan content show the wider cultural components associated by Irish-language leftists with nationalist or radical insurgencies abroad.
“Fianna Fáil Gaelic and Sinn Féin Irish” sums up ideological squabbles and linguistic shibboleths amidst political deviations from conventional Irish conceptions of language: in its teaching, its form, and in its public role as the “first official language” of the Republic. Not only loyalists but nationalists debate its state-sponsored funding or subversively anti-establishment presence. Within the Jailtacht, Irish became a living language once again, while the Gaeltachtaí struggled to sustain Gaeilge as a communal channel of exchange and a personally chosen signifier. Additionally, claims of Irish-language acquisition linked (arguably in fetishised or tokenistic manner) rebellious republicans from the old IRA with those who swelled its Provisional ranks five decades later. This origin myth generated an “invented tradition” of an iconic, subversive Irish passed down decades behind bars.
This book concludes: “language is too powerful a tool not to be political”. Despite the cross-border and post-GFA efforts to ease Irish out of its Northern and republican contexts, this study argues for the potency of Jailic. For, spawned under repression, it reclaims and appropriates by “strength, power, and dominance”. Language endures against oppression and occupation. Symbolically, Jailic stands for Irish resistance. (To Estudios Irlandeses 8 [2012]: 189-190; 3-23-13 to Amazon US)

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Harry Browne's "The Frontman: Bono (In the Name of Power)": Book Review

When Bono sells charity, should we buy his good intentions? As with Barack Obama, his savvy equals his threat. He imitates an activist, but he supports the powers that be. Tellingly, Obama's 2008 campaign played U2's "City of Blinding Lights" for the candidate's entrance. Bono peddles ideas for helping the poor to those such as the President, his donors, his cronies, and fans of both men. Logically, Bono gains plaudits from not only his audience, but politicians, philanthropists, and the wealthy. Without denying the practical good achieved by some of his projects, Harry Browne, a Dublin-based "activist and journalist", criticizes Bono's cozy neo-liberal, market-funded loyalties. Justice cannot be increased, Browne argues, without confronting this pampered elite.  Browne denies that aid, debt relief, or even altered trade agreements will fundamentally alter global poverty for billions of its recipients. Bono makes peace with power.

Taking his subject "very" seriously but with a touch of Irish self-deprecation and "light relief" as Bono would himself his own self, Browne cautions us against any expectations of a hatchet job. Sure, many assure us that Bono means well. Browne, however, as one better placed than most of Paul Hewson's admirers, knows the reaction by fellow Dubliners to Ballymun's earnest lad turned icon. Irish begrudgery cuts down those judged to have climbed high.

Bono advanced by Browne's estimation to "true greatness" by his own sly but genuine merits, but does this success grant him a free pass to peddle the schemes of technocrats, bankers, and arms dealers? Browne says no. Rather than rehash U2's musical impact or Bono's lyrics (unless relevant), Browne analyzes Bono's political success. He shifts Bono from a "bleeding-heart" left-liberal to a "conservative, Western-centric, and pro-capitalist" allegiance; this polemic joins a Counterblasts series against "apologists for Empire and Capital" Thomas Friedman, Michael Ignatieff, Bernard-Henri Lèvy, and Christopher Hitchens. The Frontman aims at Bono as a celebrity target.

Browne dispatches neatly the mythic origins assumed by gullible audiences of any street-smart cred, given U2's relatively posh origins despite their geographical residence as teens growing up on the purportedly working class northside of Dublin.  They sought success early. Browne touches upon a key force: the evangelical Christian beliefs of The Edge, Larry Mullen Jr., and Bono Vox. Their ambitions matched with a sly, ruthless manager, Paul McGuinness, who "was and is a traditional Irish Catholic, which is to say a man without a shred of obvious, let alone ostentatious, Christianity". 

U2's emotional justification, to use music as "self-expression" to reveal revelation, countered a comparative lack of early skill, in Browne's estimation. Schooled in stagecraft, passionate, charming and well-connected within the Dublin music scene and soon abroad, "Bono talked a great gig".

But as in "Sunday Bloody Sunday" Bono's lyrics distanced themselves from ideological precision; they evoke charged Irish republican and nationalist themes without targeting responsibility for the cycle of violence perpetuated by more than one faction. The band's nimble manipulation of Irish identity led to American acclaim but this led U2 into being "appropriated" by Irish "politicians and pundits as a reason for the nation to be cheerful and encouraged" during yet another jobs downturn. Their stance elevated U2's "not-being-in-Ireland" attitude during the 1980s, as their self-righteous singer served as international spokesman for his homeland--if in an apolitical, unthreatening form. 

Ireland's generous incentives allowing the creative classes tax breaks on their published works fortuitously afforded U2 the opportunity to invest their quarter-century of profits in an opaque series of holding entities and start-ups, few of which flourished on paper. By 2006, the Irish government enacted a limit of 250,000 euro on untaxed earnings; U2 sent its money off to the Netherlands. Bono tried to argue that the band never broke any laws, but in trying to revamp the band's "tax avoidance" as "an act of patriotism" Browne blames Bono for his characteristic evasion. Promoting the "priorities of global capital" while attempting to represent himself as an "outspoken advocate of conventional wisdom," Bono from "Do They Know It's Christmas?" to Band Aid to Self Aid to Live Aid draws himself increasingly into the status quo even as he tries to stand out as a celebrity humanitarian. 

"His capacity to speak the language of global justice while advancing policies that do little to advance it might be regarded as the central political fact of Bono's subsequent career." Browne in part two explains how African debt relief, albeit an admirable cause, when backed by global banks does not generate domestic infrastructures within poor nations, but eases entry for foreign investment by multinationals. While $15 billion earmarked for anti-retroviral drugs to fight AIDS creates tangible change, as Browne credits via Bono's successful pleas to George W. Bush, this program emboldened the Christian Right to dictate its own moral guidelines for which African supplicants received priority care. Such reliance by Africans on First World aid perpetuates the Third World's dependence on charity as epitomized by the patronizing programs such as (RED) and ONE endorsed by Bono. 

(RED) shares with U2 a consistent lack of transparency in tracing precisely where its funds go. (Browne pegs Bono's personal wealth at half a billion dollars.) "Charitainment" fuels First World consumption, often of high-end baubles, fashion, and gadgets by First World consumers. Nike, Amex, Converse, Apple sign on, under contracts that betray the restricted amounts dispensed. A small share may go to worthy causes, but what Browne labels as "pitching pennies" to the poor faraway adds up to comparatively little. The past six years show, as far as can be ascertained, $200 million raised by (RED). U2's latest two-year tour added $736 million to their Dutch accounts. 

Meanwhile, 2010 advertised Bono with his wife, Ali, clutching $1000 limited-edition Louis Vuitton bags as they looked, in an artfully altered setting, as if they had just landed in an African grassland. Their prop plane's wheel was sprayed with mud. The air glows gold, shot by Annie Leibowitz. 2012 found Bono backing the NGO Invisible Children, responsible for the Kony video tied to a right-wing Christian spokesman whom Bono defended. His tangled ties to the continent keep digging deeper.  

Part three shifts from Africa to the rest of the world, as in its enclaves Davos and Pebble Beach, or wherever the G8 summits or World Bank's tycoons convene. By now, Browne cleverly borrows another messiah's prediction: "Wherever two or three are gathered, there too shall you find Bono, telling them how good they are." Tony Blair or Gordon Brown, Bill Clinton or George W., Obama or Oprah huddle with him, along with lesser-known but greatly influential figures such as Kennedy scion Bobby Shriver, who speeds Bono's access to neocon hawk Paul Wolfowitz and shock doctrine economist Jeffrey Sachs. Mark Zuckerberg, Bill and Melinda Gates, and George Soros also bend their ear to what Bono suggests. What he advises appears to bolster more injustice rather than justice.

Browne never claims that Bono's endeavors do not pay off by creating some good. Bono for all his jibes at his own image relishes the chance to use his prominence as U2's frontman to improve the lives of others. But his critic insists, as fairly as he can, that Bono does so not with much of his own money, but by encouraging the powerful to distribute their own funds. True, these may alleviate suffering, and minimize hunger. These funds from the elite nations and the affluent, however, go far less often if at all to assisting those who would shout out hard questions about wealth inequality, lack of education, or capitalist fidelity to the economic disparities which most of humanity labors under. 

Bono's appeal carried him far in the past thirty-odd years. Browne observes that "while mere photo-ops with Bush had earned Bono the anger of many US (and Irish) liberals, his lavish praise for Obama put him firmly in their company". Still, this journalist concedes that while his musical career may still hold surprises, his activism may find a less gullible hearing from those who connect Bono more closely with "Washington's powerful elite" over the past two decades, no matter which party.  

This critique nears its conclusion, in what is a slightly wearying (Browne rarely questions the tropes of radical rhetoric but then, would Verso have published this otherwise?) but often astute analysis, by reminding us of how a rock star's hubris may await Bono's next career move. It's a supposedly "post-recession" recovery, we are told by those with whom Bono partied and politicked. The best albums of U2 appeared quite a while back. Mephisto McFly buzzed away. Bono buys stock in Facebook. 

"A decade ago, one might arguably have suggested that he stood outside the system, bringing some moral authority to bear on questions of global poverty and disease and what to do about them. Today, as a high-profile multimillionaire investor, as part of a band of notorious tax-avoiders who assured us that financial innovation was the route to success, as the man who dressed a bunch of multinational corporations in the favoured shade of (RED), as the Blairite who applauded when the world's war-mongers pretended to lavish some relief on a few poor countries while saddling them with more neoliberal conditions -- today, he is hard to see as anything other than one of Them, the elite 1 per cent of 1 per cent." Nobody expects Mick Jagger to give away his millions, I suppose. But the Rolling Stones never aspired to position themselves as arbiters of a global conscience. Browne cannot discern how much Bono himself donates to charitable causes. (That estimate may be lower than that of some others equally graced with enormous funds tucked away, Browne avers.) This impenetrable labyrinth of financial fronts for the frontman and his bandmates in U2, abetting the charities Bono urges upon his clientele and the luxuries for us as consumers, may lead readers to wonder what U2 is up to. U2 naming its own financial holding entity Not Us Ltd. appears up to more than name games.

This book's cover photo, of Bono shaking hands with George W., will never gain the iconic kitsch status of Elvis meets Nixon. But the collusion between celebrity and conniver grows more blurred. Neither an American president nor an Irish pop star appears willing anymore to play the court fool. Browne's sharply drawn depiction of superstar humanitarianism and rock star philanthropy, personified in Paul David Hewson's rise to a status never attained by a previous member of a band, certainly diminished the King's pretensions to world domination by comparison. Elvis may have sought to rule the stage, but Bono and his friends in high places seek to rule us, by gradual stages. Taking care of business, indeed. (PopMatters 7-31-13. In shorter and altered form to Amazon US 7-12-13)

Monday, October 21, 2013

Colin Broderick's "That's That: A Memoir": Review

While the phrase popularized by Seamus Heaney "whatever you say, say nothing" endures as a code for Northern Irish character toughened by the Troubles, Colin Broderick's telling of his childhood reveals the language unspoken. He gives us a glimpse at those in the IRA who were never by necessity singled out by their supporters, but who carried themselves with an air of entitlement, entrusted as they were by the Catholic community with their protection and their idealism in a time when those with whom they shared a village's main road or shops or those in a market town kept a distance, Protestant petrol stations and pubs for some, Catholic ones for others, and outside of a terse greeting, no acknowledgment or admission that could betray confidences to the occupying enemy and the long-settled watchful neighbor both.

Broderick, born in 1968, raised when virginity still was expected and when the Church still dominated, tells in many instances a familiar tale. He details cutting turf and picking potatoes memorably; he comes of age into sex and brawling the way many have in his rural circumstances in County Tyrone; he emigrates only to return to the hard choices that push him off the island for good.

While some of this for all his cautious balance of intimacy and tact moves his story along as expected in respectable but not astonishing form, he intersperses the device of having his family react to the BBC news reports of atrocities to convey the span of time and the intransigence of the war in his native land. This efficiently tells the reader when the chapters are occurring in a roundabout manner, freeing the narrative from chronology. However, a spirited first ten pages of Irish history in revisionist fashion surprises--Patrick comes full of "retribution" for the humiliation endured as a slave, and overthrows the comparatively preferable Celtic way of life for what soon is suffered as "a good dose of Christian shame, humiliation, and fear." (3) The collusion of the papacy with the English Crown weakens the native resistance long before the Reformation forces the natives to remain loyal to Catholicism as a badge of defiance against those who plunder, inflict, and subdue. Their own form of terror, by Broderick's infancy, sparks a violent and determined reaction from his fellow friends and cousins.

The tension grows as the war surrounds him, and while he never overplays this, or pumps up his own attitude, he demonstrates convincingly his resentment of the British and the local people--often part-time paramilitaries--who collude to control the IRA in its burrowed-in, subversive rural heartland. He lets us witness how year by year, those who become victims in the attacks and reprisals circle closer to his hamlet. Finally, the Loughgall ambush (or SAS set-up?) kills among the eight IRA operatives the two youngest, whom he knew well. This will lead him to make a deeply moral choice.

Earlier, after a harrowing incident not unfamiliar to any farm lad, he reflects on the costs of death. "We lose our childhoods by degrees. Inch by inch, time and circumstance steal the last of our innocence. Some of it will fall away unnoticed; some will be ripped forcefully from our fingers, other morsels of it we will bury in shallow graves, until only the shadow of youth exists, drifting in our wake like an abandoned ghost." (114-115)

"Perhaps that was the real mark of maturity, I thought, finally deciding which mask suits you best, and wearing it." (165) The beat between "best" and the final phrase shows Broderick's timing and pacing, He prefers to reflect, pause, and continue, sifting his memories to study and analyze them after he narrates a passage from his past.

"You just acted and spoke accordingly, never betraying an iota of your interior dialogue, even in a whisper to your closest friend, and then you had nothing at all to worry about." (348) His sangfroid after a harrowing examination by British army at a border checkpoint, in the company of an IRA higher-up who takes into his own wary confidence the trusted local youth Broderick, remains his studied pose. After a well-described chapter detailing his selling hash, working as an apprentice electrician on construction sites in London, and squatting there along with the "Tyrone clan," one prepares for his prequel-as-sequel, Orangutan, which details his stint indulging himself and working the similar trade in Manhattan, after he emigrates.

The reason he does ends his follow-up memoir, which he had to tell. "I was living in a society that demanded my silence, but I needed to talk this childhood through. I needed to scream it at the top of my lungs if I was ever going to get to the bottom of this noise. And if I survived long enough to get to the bottom of it all, to understand myself more clearly, perhaps I would not have to raise my voice at all." At nineteen, already drinking, already made the hard man by necessity in Tyrone among his McClean clan and on the sites and in the pubs of North London, Broderick leaves for America. I will certainly seek out the second half of his life, previously published, and I welcome this writer's voice.
(Amazon US 6-4-13; Slugger O'Toole 8-6-13)

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Wes Davis' "An Anthology of Modern Irish Poetry": Review

While modern, it's not only modernist in scope; Davis in helpful prefatory essays brings on about fifty poets and gives each perhaps twenty selections. He frames this with a few unobtrusive (if too scanty for a less-informed readership I assume may be often outside of Ireland) endnotes and a helpful, if truncated general introduction. There, anticipating an audience who may take him to task for not including Yeats, he begins with "ancestral figures like [Austin] Clarke, [Patrick] Kavanagh, and [Louis] MacNeice" to show how they responded to the Celtic Twilight of Yeats and predecessors. Kavanagh demanded to diverge from what he summed up or put down as "Poems of Fields, Poems of Rocks, Poems of Bogs; Poems of Bigger Fields, Poems of Harder Rocks, Poems of Deeper Bogs".

Certainly the familiar roster fills much of the nearly thousand pages of this handsomely produced collection. Politics, the Troubles, love, nature, intolerance: they make many appearances. I hazard it's only halfway, with the long lines patterned by Kavanagh and enriched by Robert Lowell in the work of John Ennis (born 1944; authors rank by birth) and then a leap eight years to Harry Clifton, that many readers will find a name or two they might not already know. Davis notes that he wanted to give space to those still writing, and therefore each poet gains about the same amount of space; this balances in my opinion the recognized titles from the usual pantheon with those meriting attention from the younger ranks, and those who've labored long in the shadow of those hoisting awards, occupying tenure and featuring on a syllabus or as a seminar, and jetting around the world.

Therefore, as editor, Davis chooses to direct our attention away from Yeats, not towards him. Any reader can find him and the other famous poets included here elsewhere. What one may not find as easily abroad (published by Harvard this represents this need) might be such as Dennis O'Driscoll, Mary O'Malley, Paula Meehan from the mid-1950s, and those following, to name but a few. Those who grew up studying Yeats and his peers in Ireland later in the century began to explore with greater precision the Irish language traditions, as school in many cases exposed writers to these influences. While the lack of Gaeilge compromises the value of this book somewhat, Michael Davitt, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, and Cathal Ó Searcaigh in translation arrive to echo its impact, all three anticipated.

After WWII in the North and the South, more poets entered higher education (post-Meehan and O'Driscoll all those listed born after the mid-1950s earned degrees and, increasingly as contemporary times overlap, doctorates). As the present comes closer, the dispersal of those included to other lands, for a while or for good, accelerates. It's no longer the exile brought on by censorship of state or clerisy, but a choice invited by teaching opportunities or occupations abroad that beckons the post-WWII generations away from Ireland even as, in Sara Berkeley's line from rural Northern California, she's 'always leaving Ireland'. (qtd. 858)

It's noteworthy that two couples stationed overseas appear: Vona Groarke with Conor O'Callaghan, and Peter Sirr with Enda Wyley. Poems by later writers roam into corners as often as earlier writers such as Pearse Hutchinson or Richard Murphy poked about Continental, American, Asian, ancient, or medieval lore, but one finds globalization among many newer writers. Justin Quinn wanders Prague; Sinéad Morrissey leaves Belfast to teach in Germany, study in Japan, and to fly over the Gobi Desert.

The greatest pleasure here comes when as Davis intends one can dig down into a poet. Padraic Fiacc's anguish as he returns as a young man from New York City to 1970s Belfast, Meehan's barbed and prickly re-creation of the tale of Acteon beset by maidens as they enter their synchronised menstrual cycle, or O'Driscoll's masterful vignette of 'The Clericals' as they sum up their faded office status as they turn as outmoded as another era's technology await, among hundreds of hidden offerings within.
(Amazon 5-7-13; to Slugger O'Toole 7-18-13 . Thanks to Ben Howard for sending me a copy; part of his in-depth critique can be found via the Sewanee Review (Spring 2013) 21.2.)

Thursday, October 17, 2013

"To the Winds Our Sails: Irish writers translate Galician poets": Book Review

This 2010 anthology collects five poems each from ten Galician women. Irish poets translate four per poet from an English-language crib, with the remaining one rendered into Irish itself. The results reveal some of the revived enthusiasm and energy emanating from this northwestern corner of Iberia, with its alleged ancient ties to the Celtic lands, as the legendary homeland of the Irish themselves. 

How such expression cross over linguistic expanses, co-editor Mary O’Donnell observes, raise questions. ‘It remains one of the essential questions whenever translation is in the air: how should it be done—an attempt at a literal transposition, an attempt to capture the spirit of the poem, regardless what gymnastics of language and phrasing, or is it a bit like making a dog stand on its hind legs? In other words, can it be done at all?’

Comparing Luz Pozo Garza’s take (from As arpas de Iwerddon [The Harps of Iwerddon—unmentioned in this very under-annotated book but it’s the Welsh version of Éire]) on the medieval account Lebor Gabala Éren or Book of Invasions, the possibilities emerge across the sea that unites rather than divides Galician from Gael. Taking Binn Éadair as her setting in these inclusions, she evokes a John Hinde picture-postcard rather than today’s Howth full of imposing villas. She appears to wish to return to what was imagined, in venerable or more recent depictions of this fabled promontory north of Dublin, and like her translator Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, envisions myth within or beneath today’s exurban sprawl. 

Manuela Palacios in her preface explains the context for each poet. She singles out Luz Pichel’s surrealism. The unpredictable bursts into her “Burning the Firewood’. I cite in full for a flavour of her style. ‘The fog at daybreak is crammed with the bustle/ of rushing people./ A cock’s cry that comes with from afar/ echoes the cry of the crow,/ that scurries frightened/ by the blows of men.// They rise with the day and break maces/ against the doors of the cattle shed.// Another cock responds./ I look at the woodshed and think/ how I would like to burn it all.’

Catherine Phil MacCarthy’s rendition captures the rhythm of the Galician, with about the same amount of syllables per line. English usually takes fewer words than the original, so MacCarthy’s choice shows the attention to not only meaning but melody that translation may provide. Poets were given free rein to tighten or loosen the English or Irish equivalents, and in the latter (each Galician chose which of her five poems would be singled out for the Gaelic selection; some Irish poets had their own command of Irish to translate and some were given assistance, notably by Rita Kelly), considerable change can be seen, as that language in turn often demanded more words and more syllables than the Galician, in turn.

Why use three languages? This parallels, as O’Donnell shows, compare 'two histories of struggle, two histories almost assimilated by greater, eloquent cultures that communicate in what are decisively termed world languages’, so giving Gaeilge and Gallego a chance to be heard along with English and rather than Spanish strengthens cultural exchange and encourages dialogue between the two nations, in real or idealised manifestations between two cultural cousins, seeking blood ties beyond the water.

Ultimately, the choice of ten women poets itself burrows into the land for some, and transcends its limits for others eager to enter imaginary or psychic terrain. This matters for any reader. Let Xiana Arias via Paddy Bushe conclude, as they do this volume, with a burst of transmission asserting ‘This is Not Feminine Literature’: ‘This is not feminine literature, the author said, while writing a play for children. There is a hero who snatches a beautiful woman from the arms of an evil man. In the end she leaves, alone, scoring the asphalt with her toenails.’ This image digs deep into one’s imagination, a fitting way to leave the impact of this encounter within the reader’s mind. (Slugger O'Toole 9-25-13 and to Amazon US 8-10-13)

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Ag tiomáint go Naomh Prionsias aríst

Thiomáint Léna agus mé go Naomh Prionsias ar feadh an deireadh sa tseachtaine seo caite. Chuir mé páipéar go An Chomhdháil Mheiricéanach do Léann na hÉireann ansin. Labhair mé faoi Séamaisín Ó Gaibhtheachain agus a úrscéal "Fir Lár."

Fhág muid an Cathair na Áingeal ag leath an naoi anuas ar maidin. Stop muid ina margadh mór nua in Oxnard, "Biannaí ar fad." Chuaigh muid amach romhainn feadh an chósta ar an 101 go Paso Robles; breathnaigh muid an tuath álainn ag dul.

Chonaic mé an ghrúdlann Firestone-Walker ag imeall Solvang riomh, ach ní raibh sé ann níos mo. Ach, bhí sé níos faide ar thuaith. Tá sé lárnach idir an dá chathair mór anois.

Ith mé pizza; ith Léna borgaire. Sampláil mé eitilt "seomra sconna"; is maith liom "ghrúd-IPA" féin an chuid is fearr. Tá sé ina áit mór ach ag tabhairt cuireadh, measaim.

Bhuail muid a lán de trachta ína Gleann na Sileachain. Bíonn sé chomh dona sa bhaile, gan amhras. Mar sin féin, tháinig muid ar an óstán mór ar lár Naomh Prionsias ag trasna Sráide Margadh in aice leis ag leath an sé, ar deireadh.

Shiúil muid anuas Teach Uí Mhurchú. Shiugh muid i gCaife Claude ag ith béile Fraincis. Bhi muid tuirseach ach sásta.

Driving to San Francisco again.

Layne and I drove to San Francisco during the weekend before last. I gave a paper to the American Conference of Irish Studies there. I spoke about Jim Gavin and his novel "Middle Men."

We left Los Angeles at half past nine in the morning. We stopped in a large new market in Oxnard, Whole Foods. We went off next along the coast on the 101 to Paso Robles; we watched the lovely countryside go by.

I ate pizza; Layne ate a burger. I sampled a "taproom" flight; the brewpub's own IPA pleases me best of the lot. It's a place big but inviting, I think.

I had seen the Firestone-Walker brewery near Solvang before, but it was not there any more. But, it was further north. It is centrally between the two great cities now.

We hit a lot of traffic in Silicon Valley. It was as bad as at home, no doubt. Nevertheless, we arrived at the grand hotel in the center of San Francisco across from Market Street near half past six, finally.

We walked past Murphy's Pub. We sat at Café Claude to eat a French meal. We were tired but contented. Photo/Grianghraf.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Tony Bailie's "A Verse for Murder": e-Book Review

This cover merits study--it's well chosen and ties into the mystery elaborated by an informant. The title, a play off of the "murder of crows," echoes in the name of Barry Crowe, a Belfast journalist (or is it "sleazy tabloid hack"?) pursuing the backstory behind the sudden demise, apparently by auto-asphyxiation, of Northern Ireland's leading poet. The compromising circumstances unfold neatly in this e-book novella.

Bailie, whose novels The Lost Chord and Ecopunks delved into respectively gnosticism and New Age quests, continues his application of Celtic and esoteric themes into his fiction. As a Belfast-based journalist (and a poet), he enjoys sending up his profession(s) and their shared pretensions. His short story "The Druid's Dance" in the anthology Requiems for the Departed by Irish mystery writers incorporating Celtic myth and archetypes anticipates the mood and tone of this new tale.

Reviewing a mystery, one cannot give much away. The blurb at Amazon sums up the premise enticingly. It's not betraying the story to admit that the set-up elaborates into, over 74 quick pages, an entry into the symbol of the spiral and the Triple Goddess of Celtic lore. Drawing on, in my "guesstimation," theories of spacetime and the earlier attempts of Irish writers Denis Johnston (The Brazen Horn) and Francis Stuart (The Abandoned Snail Shell) to plunge into the liminal, the results for Barry recall those of the warp-spasm of Cú Chulainn, and the cosmic terror that seems to cross generations and centuries as Bríd, Andrea, and Alma enter the lives of Barry and his cop pal Dervla.

Phrasing sharpens: "curtains all along the street begin twitching in a semaphore of suburban noisiness" updates Brinsley McNamara's once-famous novel about a gossiping lot, in the "valley of squinting windows."  Rowan Tree "looked like a poet should do, elongated body, gaunt face, exploding hair and eyes that suggested insanity." Another, once-promising, poet's eyes "retained the primal urgency of someone who wanted to say something but had no idea of how to say it."

Futurist couplings of poetry as violence, "sexual electricity," a jealous bard Rowan Tree's curse in verse, hallucinogens, nods to Robert Graves and pagan rituals still alive today in the heart of the city: these exemplify the details Tony Bailie adds to enrich his narrative. If you find this enticing, you will find this efficiently conveyed but pleasingly allusive tale a pleasure. I'd like to hear more from Barry.
(Amazon US 10-31-12 and British Amazon; slightly edited and expanded for Slugger O'Toole 10-22-13. P.S. See also my brief review the same day of his electronically delivered short story "Sacred Santa" on Amazon US and British Amazon)

Friday, October 11, 2013

Ken Bruen's "Purgatory": Book Review

The tenth Jack Taylor novel finds our Galway noir investigator in a somewhat more cheerful mood. Thanks to some money earned from the past installment's (Headstone: see my review for this as all his Taylor tales) good fortune keeps him in better spirits; smokes and drinks tempt him reliably. Ken Bruen provides a steady if ultimately sly plot, as Jack, cranky enough, has a bit less to grouse about.

Bankers, the Church, the developers ruining Galway city and everywhere else: they all seem to connive and thrive even as, circa late 2011 into 2012, the economy for everyone else Irish (and abroad?) goes south. Jack this time out, with Ridge his help on the police force and Stewart his contact with the more marginal forces that instill compliance, return. They square off against a vigilante, "C33," who we learn is self-imagined as "A Dexter with an Irish lilt." But surprises await, sad more than uplifting, for all who get sucked into the force field.

Hoodies may cloak some of the wealthy who seek to own cities while Jack struggles to pay the rent, as he's told. But robber barons still lurk within denim or cotton casuals. Jack--who for once doesn't hit the charity shop to outfit himself--is tuned into popular culture as always. This time, he's watching a lot of largely American cable-t.v. series that have been cancelled before they can come to fruition: an apt comparison, he discovers. He's called "Seth MacFarlane with an Irish sensibility" for his own hapless non sequitors and wandering attention, as age and other abuses take their toll.

He blames Lonely Planet and tourists and the relentless buskers and balladeers that cram the medieval streets of the city center for the Galwegian decay, too. Part of the curdled charm comes from Bruen channelling via Jack his own jaundiced look at his native town's transformation by greed, fads, and globalized capital. But, he's tapped into them well enough, in terms of entertainment, himself. As a student of the concept of purgatory, as an aside, I wondered how it fit in more than as anther ecclesiastical-eerie title in the series. Not much except a few chapter colophons, such as that state as a "backup" policy kept in reserve by the Church, which as always gets its share of scorn.

Bruen's eye for the quiet insight rewards. A gold Zippo sounds "like some weary hope" as it's clunked to light up another smoke. "My life didn't imitate fiction; it mocked it." He looks into a suspect's library room: "When books are for show, be sure you've put ammunition in the nine, double-check."

As always, Irish character gets notice. A contact who helps Jack and is helped in return, to nicely contradictory results that spur the ambiguous, hang fire conclusion, is said to be "not the worst, which  in Ireland is a huge compliment." This novel, which moves along in smoother fashion than some recent Taylor escapades, has one key character again getting more body blows than a cartoon cat, and I wonder about that person's resilience, but it looks from the final chapter more surprises will follow in another Taylor adventure if he and his pals can hold out and keep upright. (out 10/22/13)

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Ken Bruen's "Headstone": Book Review

For the ninth in the series, Jack Taylor pursues a cabal of murderous Goths bent on putting a bent version of social Darwinism into action in Galway. Their victim dies poignantly, and it's hard to take. I listened to John Lee's audiobook and that heightened the emotion: his voice is well-suited for Taylor despite a few words a bit off in his pronunciation of the Irish language that speckles a bit of the story, as Ken Bruen does in each installment. Lee and Bruen suit each other for a clipped, hard-bitten, and ironic take on Irish cruelty and endemic hypocrisy.

The plot did not keep me in suspense as much as usual for Taylor. I wondered about Laura's continued off-stage presence. I suppose Bruen knows what he's doing for the long run in the series as to dramatic effect, but her suspension puzzled me. Taylor burns her London letter: the ashes float, "desperate despair of a dying dream."

Desperation builds. Ireland's debt puts her under; this seems set around the end of 2010 when ice crippled the island for three months. Greed, however, still flourishes, same as in the boom years. Stewart's past stint in prison earns a standout flashback chapter that fills us in on his personality better than we'd seen before, easing a bit Jack's summation of him as "a personification of the new Irish: sleek, smug, and self-absorbed."

This time around, the plot did not draw me in much. The atmosphere did. Adroitly, Bruen conveys in tough guy (lots of Americanism filter into the speech of more and more Irish, tellingly raised on crime shows and pop culture) Taylor a respect for decency and an aversion to cruelty, even as Jack metes it out in measure for measure inflicted on the innocent.

Ridge reliably returns, Kosta hovers again, and Clancy's sidekick O'Brien in a late appearance interrupts Jack's reverie of his father at a part of the historic and once lovely city, eager to tear out its heart for luxury flats, hotels, and multinational chain stores. It's a Galway not peddled to tourists, but it remains one of Bruen's best "characters." (8-11-13 to Amazon US)

Monday, October 7, 2013

Ken Bruen's "The Devil": Book Review

As in later Jack Taylor installments, the religious titles continue here in number eight, upping the ante for his confrontation with Mr. K./Kurt/Carl Franz who claims to be the Devil himself. Bothered by Jack's holding out against evil, this mysterious stranger prevents him from flying to America, and ups the ante in Jack's hometown. It's painful, for with an antagonist who knows more than previous opponents, you meet three characters all likeable who meet their maker in sad fashion after Jack crosses paths with them and the enemy follows swiftly to mete out punishment. Cumulatively, the emotional impact for the reader familiar with Jack and his haunted milieu means you will feel the pain of their passing as Jack does.

I like the usual wit. Ridge's husband "Anthony was all Anglo-Irish cordiality, warmth without conviction" (64); near the Augustinian church in Galway city center, a head shop sits: "Seemed kind of apt, both sold mood change, depending on what you believed and especially what you had to spend."(133); "In Ireland, a 'private remark' is like putting it on a billboard." (197)

Tinkers play a role late on, and this refers back to Jack's intervention on their behalf in the second novel, but enough is filled in here for a newcomer to get the gist. This novel works more as a stand-apart than earlier tales. It's odd to see among the usual shout-outs to fellow crime novelists and current singers Taylor likes to promote that Vinny at Charley Byrne's bookstore recommends to Taylor a novel set on Nun's Island named "Sanctuary." The author is unnamed, Ken Bruen himself.

A few reviewers previously noted what I wondered when pondering this: how independently verifiable is the Dark One's presence in Galway. Is this Jack's Xanax-Jameson-Guinness bender unfurling for a novel's length in novel fashion? Still, he drinks and abuses his mind and body in similar style for many years now, so what's different in this situation? Facing off for once against a foe who may be immortal, the action does feel different in tone than the others in the series (all of which I've reviewed here): it's slightly muted for all its horror. Not sure if it works as smoothly, for all its typically savage tirades against a selfish, consumer-driven, and now debt-ridden Ireland. But it's a great premise, and while of course familiarity with Taylor and his career is recommended, this one emerges among Taylor's feisty, stumbling career more independently than others.

What puzzled me was the denouement. Ken Bruen leaves you with a fun twist, but the person on whom it's perpetrated pops in so casually and off-handedly in the final chapter that this feels weaker, limper, than the punch one would expect from an author skilled in channeling rage and insight through his troubled Galway investigator. Still, I liked it and you may too.(Amazon US 8-11-13)

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Benjamin Black's "Holy Orders": Book Review

With the sixth installment in John Banville's busman's holiday writing as Benjamin Black, pathologist Quirke with a side pursuit as amateur detective risks resembling a brooding houseguest intent on staying. Banville's erudite, Continental-style novels of ideas, with characters trapped within history by their own haunted compromises, continue to differ thematically from his mysteries set in 1950s Dublin. However, as Black's "Quirke novels" have met with a wider following than his mannered, dour ones, loyal readers such as myself may sense Quirke merging with Banville's louche protagonists. Black's prose which initially appeared to distinguish "genre" from Banville's "literary" fiction has evolved by now more similarities than contrasts. What still may set this protagonist apart from his creator's other characters may be his troubled, resilient self. It sustains Quirke through more tales than those given Banville's anguished men--although some of those revive or reappear in Banville's novels, which continue apace.

Still, the Quirke franchise needed a jolt. The setup in Christine Falls introduced Quirke, and the delayed reaction by Phoebe as they meet again, long after Quirke's decision to pass off his daughter to his sister and her husband to raise as their own. The Silver Swan, of the five my favorite, met with muted enthusiasm among some, but I enjoyed its tawdry evocation of deluded Dubliners craving esoteric wisdom. Secrecy represses Irish society, often amidst those seeking status or having obtained it trying to keep it, and the whiff of corruption remains pungent, more than the chemicals within Quirke's morgue--where as Black's novels progress the doctor appears to spend less and less time.

Phoebe's doctor friend April Latimer vanishes in the poignant Elegy for April (see my PopMatters review). Midstream in this series, cub reporter Jimmy Minor assumes a supporting role, along with Phoebe's boyfriend and Quirke's colleague David Sinclair. The predicament of those marginalized within Catholic culture, the few Jewish citizens such as Sinclair, and in Elegy the plight of international students, receive probing attention as Black scrutinizes the cutting or cruel mores of the economically troubled and very suspicious nation which at this period raised him as Banville.

Dislocation follows in A Death in Summer (see my PopMatters review), and it opens splendidly. But I found its elegant saunter languid compared with the previous two city tales. Black starts off strong, lets the energy simmer, parades a series of suspects for Police Inspector Hackett and his part-partner  to seek out, and then solves the puzzle in the final fifteen pages adroitly. Even if Death succeeded in its arch tone as it pursued skulduggery among the gentry, I prefer the down and dirty Dublin settings. The darker alleys force Black to peer at the grime where he must confront a dismal postwar malaise.

Vengeance (see my PopMatters review) again begins with brio, as Black finds a suitably vixenish foil to unnerve Quirke. In advanced middle age, he's resigned to the arms of an aging actress, Isabel, after his wife's death. Battling the bottle, worse for wear, he's determined to continue his tiring avocation.

Jimmy Minor, April and Phoebe's friend, had worked as a junior reporter for a Dublin paper. His boyish corpse, fished out of the River Liffey, opens this latest novel. With the suggestive title of Holy Orders, the connivance of a compliant, cowed government with the lordly Church in this oppressive era of postwar Irish history looms; it's very difficult to shake the sensation that this novel is not happening over a half-century later, amidst continued revelations of clerical abuse and conspiracy.

In a dramatic, harrowing scene, overcome at a priests' gloomy residence by his childhood memories at a feral Catholic orphanage, Quirke's heart seems to burst. As if a bird fluttering from inside his ribcage, the bewildered sufferer peers out at thieving magpies and hovering blackbirds. Black conjures doom compactly. It resounds through the calmly told chapters of this confident novel.

Quirke's vertigo and hallucinations pierce this novel to prickle to the reader's response to mystery. "He went out to the living room. A parallelogram of insipid sunlight lay on the floor under a window like the parts of a broken kite. He stood and looked about himself, feeling dazed. The morning's watercolor tints lent a novel sheen to familiar surfaces. Everything was as it always was, yet somehow he could recognize nothing. It was as if all that was formerly here had been swept away in the night and replaced with a shiny new version of itself, identical in every aspect, yet one-dimensional and hollow, like props in a fantastically detailed stage setting." (160)

Phoebe notices her father's altered state, accentuating his habitual tendency to peer out at the world as if through the eyes of the disappointed child he was in the orphanage. While the novel relies on an indirect omniscient narrative via Quirke, Black sidles into her perspective. Through her unease with Jimmy's twin sister, Sally, Phoebe's own self fractures. "She felt as if one whole side of her life was shearing off and toppling into the sea."

Hints of Joyce's Ulysses linger: cocoa, cinnamon, and pineapple entice Dubliners from their slump. Beckett's inquiring light which troubled some of his own trapped characters enters, too, more ominously, onto Quirke's mental stage to illuminate his enigmatic inner vision. By now, readers of a sixth book need no sixth sense to be told why. Quirke simply soldiers on, with handmade Italian shoes trudging the mud of a down-and-out campsite, tracking down if not legal justice than moral recompense, despite his ennui.

Deceit, suspicion, jealousy, doubt: Banville and Black join, through Quirke and Phoebe, the ageless concerns of storytellers. Holy Orders freshens them. May my lack of plot details encourage you to encounter their treatment for yourself, for their evocation proves this to be the most powerful Quirke novel yet. Black's return from gentry pursuits to Quirke's inward search, and his concern for what Quirke's former lover tells him he has, not her husband's "heart" but the rarer quality of a "soul", endures to enrich this sixth tale of this haunted Dubliner's lonely hunt for answers--or partial clues. 
(Amazon US in briefer form 8-20-13; as above to PopMatters 8-15-13)