Monday, December 29, 2008

The Journey to Dermot Bolger's House

Dermot Bolger's The Journey Home was originally published in 1990 but not in the United States, apparently, until this University of Texas Press edition came out in 2007 (and kudos to UTP for publishing two Stack books in a row, that's more than coincidence). That was indeed something that needed rectifying, as Bolger has written a novel that epitomizes the concerns of contemporary Irish novelists; it's hard to imagine a more explicit rendering of the late 20th century Irish malaise than this one. To me, an American who lives in the Spanish Caribbean, with Irish Catholic ancestry from one parent and a WASP heritage from the other, Irish literature helps both to nurture my Irish identity and to appreciate the larger human condition. The Irish, like the Eastern Europeans, are Europeans who have the kind of rough history that one associates with less insulated parts of the world.

In the present case the central issue is universal. There is an old Ireland, but still only a couple of generations past, still alive in the memory and culture of today's Irish, but increasingly existing only in the collective memory, and then there is today's Ireland, quickly assimilating into the powerful forces of globalization that ravage traditional culture. Ireland's difficult history as an Anglophone country heightens sensitivity to the nihilistic power of "development." Bolger is clear on his emotional resistance to modernity, a reaction familiar to me both from Puerto Ricans and from my years in the Rocky Mountain west, two other wonderful worlds under siege by the present.

The old plazas in the center of Spanish colonial towns in Puerto Rico are largely dead zones today, the small businesses wiped out by the malls outside of town, malls that could just as well be in Minnesota or California or, say, Cork. It's hard to identify some specific, malevolent force driving modernization, Bolger resists the facile temptation to simply identify secular modernity with America (granting he's writing in the late 80s before Europe discovered this easy demonic Other), and he is far from unaware of the pathologies of the Old Country. In fact a striking feature of his work is an underlying insistence that Ireland (and Irish literature) must move forward into the future or risk becoming part of a cottage industry of nostalgia. He wants us to see an Ireland that we don't necessarily want to see.

As in John McGahern's Amongst Women, Seamus Deane's Reading in the Dark, and the work of William Trevor and Roddy Doyle, there is anger directed at what the Irish Republicans made of their power to build a nation once they had it, a sense of debts incurred but never repaid. There is a strong sense of displacement such as we find in Anne Enright's The Gathering or the earlier Protestant elegy Langrishe, Go Down by Aiden Higgins. The vehicle here is a noirish story of the corruption of youth that reminds me of the under-rated Waiting for the Healer by Eamonn Sweeney. Bolger's high-concept achievement is to have written a novel that takes these themes to a sort of benchmark conclusion: he is the Irish novelist's Irish novelist.

As an artist Bolger is technically fine although I don't find his prose to be beautiful, his dialogue does not have a wide range (a common fault of didactic writers), and his exposition is unrelieved by humor (unlike so many of the best Irish writers). The structure is very interesting and well-done, the chapters comprised of five consecutive nights of the flight of Hano, the young murderer, narrating the backstory so that events spanning a couple of years are gradually unfolded. The construction is maybe a little too good, the climactic episode of violence has been built up to so well that it is inevitably a bit too predictable; by the end Bolger has lost the power to shock. This is a book for committed devotees of Irish letters, not one to introduce someone to the joys of Irish literature: one submits to an ordeal.

There is a question as to whether the novel is homophobic, as the villain Plunkett forces the young protagonists, Hano and Shay, into vile sexual encounters. This sexual exploitation is emblematic of the betrayal of the Irish working class by the new breed of capitalist roaders, a reasonable plot device, but a mention of Shay's "gay friends" late in the book feels like an acknowledgment by Bolger that he has perhaps gone too far in demonizing Plunkett's sexuality. Meanwhile the relationship between Hano and Shay is plainly homoerotic, a common trope in depictions of young adult men for whom "mates" are sometimes more important than families afflicted with deep generation gaps.


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