Monday, March 17, 2008

Hard Boiled Irish

As my St. Patrick's Day contribution I want to write about a few recent novels that I would describe as Hard Boiled Irish. Hard Boiled Irish can be variously seen as the fictional counterpart to the Harrowing Autobiography, an enduring Irish specialty, or perhaps as a reflection of the less heroic or romantic context of late 20th century Irish politics. Certainly there is a finely-honed noir sensibility after a century of literature engaged with The Troubles. The Irishman as literary rebel has always coexisted with the Irishman as social rebel, and both types draw on deeper cultural elements that create alternate possibilities to Anglicization.

I have to start by mentioning two books from the big bad 1950s, first Brendan Behan's Borstal Boy, his memoir of his incarceration after getting involved with the IRA in Liverpool in 1939 at the age of 16 (he had gone there looking for work). The reputation of the book is that it is another representative of the grim history of English depredation, but the book is far from didactic or even political. The teenager is briefly held at a hard prison where inmates are segregated by religion and IRA prisoners are hazed, and he shows the intense social pressure to make sacrifices from more hard-core nationalist prisoners. He is eventually sent to a rural reform school for boys.

But the surprise of the book is the abiding positive spirit that the young Behan displays. He is also unfailingly compassionate in his descriptions of people. Most of all, he has a fine gaelic-inflected patois. Listening to the speech of a tough-guy Paddy circa 1940 is one of the pleasures of reading the book. At the Irish Writer's Museum I saw postcards that Behan had sent to his brother in ireland while triumphantly touring the States (he's in LA doing the town with Harpo Marx). His repeated insistence that there's no reason to worry, he's not losing his touch with the folks, does not seem ironic even as he using his Irish gift of language to cut a swath through North America.

Borstal Boy was published in 1958, and the other book that I would mention from that time is J. P. Donleavy's The Ginger Man, originally published in 1955. Sebastian Dangerfield is an Irish-American studying at Trinity College, although we join him pretty much at the end of the line when it has been so long since he applied himself that he can no longer pass the exams. He can still brawl in taverns, run out on his rent, and "put the boot in" his long-suffering girlfriend as he anticipates a big inheritance from his rich, dying father back in America. The novel is a wonderful (and very dark) satire, examining among other things stereotypes about Irish identity (and the IRA is nowhere in sight).

The latter-day Hard Boiled Irish I want to mention aren't as funny as the 50s classics. They are, however, representative of a very sturdy and strong root of noir in contemporary Irish fiction. Brian Moore is a Belfast-born novelist who has spent most of his career in North America writing a long series of novels on Irish and Catholic themes, the best-known one might be The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. His short novel Lies of Silence (1990) is a thriller, a tense hostage situation as the IRA attempts to force a man to drive a car bomb in Belfast. A pointed message of the book is the extent to which nationalist fighting in Northern Ireland has become the province of an impoverished, marginalized few; the prosperous professionals in middle-class residential areas mostly couldn't care less about this old vendetta. The setup of the IRA men spending the night with the hostage bourgeois is cinematic.

Grittier (and not an IRA novel) is Eamonn Sweeney's Waiting for the Healer (1997). The Healer is a glass made up of all the porter left in the bottoms of glasses at the pub, given in the morning to a local alcoholic in exchange for, say, fetching the paper. In the dirt-poor ghetto where Paul Kelly is from the old men are in the square waiting for the healer early in the morning. He has fled this bleak world for England where he is successfully managing restaurants. The structure here is classic: Kelly must face down both his own demons and the dark forces of his homeland after his brother is murdered.

Finally I would mention Sean O'Reilly's The Swing of Things (2004), a more sympathetic IRA novel that nonetheless also sees the "hard men" as anachronistic, corrupt, and doomed. O'Reilly is the most ambitious of these writers in terms of Irish wordplay, and his conceit of a man with a history of involvement with the IRA in the North trying to save himself by attending college (and the pubs of Temple Bar) in Dublin is rich with possibility. It's a little high-concept, but well worth reading: it's a pleasure to see a young Irish writer step up to the plate and take a swing.

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