Some of Ireland’s wisest literary commentators have been troubled in recent times by a reticence they perceive among the country’s writers of fiction on the matter of the new prosperity. The novelists have told us nothing -- thus runs the argument. An Irish Amis has proved reluctant to appear.
Like most debating stances, it obscures as much as it reveals but its assumptions are more enlightening than its conclusions. Mass-market fiction, the historical novel, the thriller, the crime novel, the stand-up comedy routine, the pop lyric, the rock lyric and other incarnations of genre-based storytelling have not been adjudged worthy of critical purview, no matter their level of engagement, often remarkably direct, with the now deceased Celtic Tiger. Where, oh where, is our Bret Easton Ellis? And where is our Bonfire of the Vanities? You sometimes get the feeling the vestals of the flame may have been looking in all the wrong places. For Anne Enright’s Taking Pictures, Colm Toibin’s Mothers and Sons, Roddy Doyle’s The Deportees, Claire Keegan’s Walk the Blue Fields and Philip O’Ceallaigh’s Notes from a Turkish Whorehouse have each implicitly claimed a power for the literary short story to speak of its complex times. Now comes an outstandingly accomplished debut collection from Irish émigré Gerard Donovan. It might persuade those who have been waiting for the epic of affluent Ireland that size isn’t everything after all.
Colm Toibin wrote some years ago, in a witty allusion to Joyce’s ‘The Dead’, that ‘snow was general over Irish fiction.’ Anyone who grew up reading Irish short stories would smile bleakly with recognition at the metaphor. There was lyricism in the writing but it sometimes blanketed the actual landscape you suspected might be lying beneath. Donovan, the latest accomplished Irish novelist to enter the snowstorm – his novel Julius Winsome is an extraordinary achievement – has no truck whatever with strategies of concealment. His stories are meltingly beautiful.
This is an Ireland of traffic, of suburbs and over-pricing, of ‘pink and blue neon signs, huge hotels standing alone till more business built up around them, and then the rabbit-cage houses.’ Rural idylls are unavailable, the stuff of daytime television. ‘It was getting on in the day and after work. Dinners were ready, lights flooding rooms. The afternoon dramas like Emmerdale Farm were at an end, and soon it would be time for the news.’ Interestingly, the city exerting its magnetism on the characters is usually Galway, not Dublin, and subtly subverted images of the Irish west abound. ‘Play some national songs,’ says one character. ‘Let’s hear some patriot songs.’ This plea has been caused by a sentence Yeats and Synge could never in their wildest nightmares have imagined. ‘I declare, my father said holding the guitar, I love Waylon Jennings.’
The writing crackles with truthfulness, a piercing acuity. A troubled husband wonders ‘what kept any couple together, what preserved a marriage from the people in it?’ A surly construction foreman ‘wore impatience in the guise of curiosity.’ The winter sun is ‘a pale yellow circle pressed like a fingertip against the ice on the bedroom window.’ A man urinates ‘to such relief that he could have written about it.’ In the wrenchingly poignant title story, set at a charity fundraising race, a businessman’s ill-considered sprint becomes an understated but continuously deepening metaphor, not only for his life but for the fervency of a society that tried running before it had learned to walk. The literal presence of the ancient past is approached with immense skill in ‘Archaeologists’ (one of several pieces in which images of archaeology figure), a troublingly prescient story set in an Ireland whose real-life politicians wish to run a motorway through the ancient valley of Tara. Indeed, cars are the setting for many important scenes in this exquisite collection, imaging the paralysis and social separation of their gridlocked occupants as poignantly as Joyce’s boarding-house rooms once did. In ‘By Irish Nights’ -- for this reader the only unsuccessful story – cars almost acquire the status of characters: ‘In the houses they pass some are not yet dreaming...Across the country, from Donegal to Tipperary and down to Kerry, the roads have begun to fill, coast roads, roads through small towns, roads widening into the midlands, narrowing into cities.’ Parallels with Joyce’s ‘After the Race’, an earlier Irish story about cars, seem to suggest themselves before disappearing like tail-lights in fog. ‘The Summer of Birds’ is a heartbreaking story, as perfect as a William Trevor miniature.
Much more than a book about the Celtic Tiger (although it is certainly that), this is a collection about the anxieties and sublimated fears of the Ireland that rejected the Lisbon Treaty in June, despite being commanded not to do so by its establishment. There’s a sense of having come too far, of something precious being lost, doing battle with a simultaneous and equally adamant mistrust of the past. Is Ireland European? A kind of America? Or both? What did the good years mean? Images of maps and cartography occur frequently in Donovan’s writing. It’s hard to avoid thinking we’ve pulled up a crossroads, the place where rural Ireland’s young people used to court and dance, but where the bluesmen of another storytelling tradition, fuelled by many a myth, sold their compromised souls to the devil. This is not the first fiction about Ireland’s economic boom but it may well be the first to see it for what it truly was, in all its shimmering newness and garish strangeness, its ugliness somehow related to its beauty. That Gerard Donovan manages to unearth such resonant grace from that paradox is remarkable. This is an important and haunting collection.