A Sampling of the Latest Irish Books
By Tom Deignan, Contributor
December / January 2005
Roddy Doyle — already acclaimed for memorable portraits of Dublin such as The Commitments and Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha — turned Irish historical fiction on its ear in 1999 with his novel A Star Called Henry. The setting was Ireland at the beginning of the 20(th) Century, a time of upheaval, betrayal and bloodshed. Not surprisingly, most authors have treated this time with utmost seriousness, earnestly illustrating the moral dilemmas and military struggles which dominated Ireland in the wake of the 1916 rebellion and through the terrible civil war years.
Well, Roddy Doyle said, enough of that. Sure, A Star Called Henry had its moments of romantic rebellion and bloody warfare. (Doyle’s recreation of the Easter Rising was nothing short of brilliant.) But the book’s main character, Henry Smart, was, first and foremost, an undeniable rogue with a fondness for women. Doyle never forgot Henry’s personal side, even as political affairs inevitably became central to the story of A Star Called Henry. Henry turns 16 just in time for the Rising and, later, becomes an IRA recruiter and trainer. Collins, de Valera and others come and go but Doyle opts to focus on Henry and one of his colorful lovers, even as the idealism which sparked the call for Irish freedom dims.
Now, Doyle is back with Oh, Play That Thing, the second book in a planned trilogy revolving around Henry Smart and Ireland in the 20(th) Century.
This time around, Henry has fled Ireland for New York, just one of thousands of immigrants left weary by another decade of war and poverty. After rubbing some New York mobsters the wrong way, Henry heads to Chicago, where a new kind of music, jazz, is lighting up the night. A rising star on the music circuit is a youngster named Louis Armstrong. But he, too, can’t get himself out from under the thumb of the mob, which runs most of the clubs in the Windy City.
Henry needs work. Armstrong needs a white manager. As unlikely as this seems, Doyle pulls it off, as this duo attempts to change the music scene in America. Along the way, Henry is reunited with his wife and daughter, before heading back to New York City.
At times, Oh, Play That Thing reaches too far and wide with its sprawling scenes. Still, Doyle’s exploration of America in the 1920s (particularly Chicago) alone makes this a fine novel. That Doyle has resurrected Henry Smart successfully is a compelling reason to look forward to the third book in this trilogy, and to also hope that perhaps there might be a fourth. ($24.95 / 384 pages / Viking)
Speaking of Roddy Doyle, he actually had a sophisticated writer in his family tree, contrary to what many readers familiar with his blue-collar look at Ireland would believe.
Maeve Brennan was related to Doyle’s parents, and is now the subject of a new biography by Angela Bourke entitled Maeve Brennan: Homesick at the New Yorker; An Irish Writer in Exile.
There are a number of troubling questions raised by the title of this book. First off, the last thing the world needs is yet another look at yet another literary person who passed through the hallowed halls of The New Yorker. Then there’s the title’s length, an indication, sometimes, that a publisher is desperate to make sure potential readers know the many important angles of a given book. Finally, some may even ask: Maeve Brennan? Who is Maeve Brennan? And if you have to ask that, you may wonder why you should want read a biography of her.
Believe it or not, however, Bourke’s book is a good one. She sets out to tell not merely a straight biography of one writer but instead a cultural history of this writer’s life and times. Again, this can be a warning signal, suggesting the biographer’s subject alone is simply not compelling enough. But Bourke has selected her topic well. Brennan’s parents were deeply involved in the political and cultural struggles of their time (the end of the 19th Century and beginning of the 20th Century). The Brennans and their circle wrote plays, ran for office and — when it was needed later on — aided in the armed struggle for Irish independence.
Maeve Brennan herself was born in 1917 and absorbed many of these cultural influences. Early on she was a promising writer and performer, and eventually relocated to New York City, where she landed work at fashion magazines and began mingling with a high-class crowd. Bourke, (author of The Burning of Bridget Cleary and a lecturer at University College, Dublin), does a fine job recreating Brennan’s time in New York and her ambiguous relationship with Ireland, which she clearly loved, yet chose to live away from. Brennan dazzled everyone who met her, and earned a reputation as one of the finest short story writers around by the time she was publishing regularly in The New Yorker.
Bourke’s final angle here, though, is as powerful as it is shocking. Brennan would eventually suffer from mental problems that left her more or less homeless. Her work was largely forgotten until Houghton Mifflin reissued The Springs of Affection in 1997, four years after Brennan died.
Bourke exaggerates when she calls Brennan an icon of the 20th Century, but the story of the Brennan family does shed a revealing light on the broader aspects of Irish history over the past century. ($25 / 352 pages / Counterpoint)
Speaking of titles, Robert F. Kennedy’s latest book pretty much tells you all you need to know: Crimes Against Nature: How George W. Bush and His Corporate Pals Are Plundering the Country and Hijacking Our Democracy.
What follows is a full-blown indictment of the Bush administration, which is not exactly balanced or nuanced. Yet, such books — by liberals such as Kennedy as well as conservatives — have been flying up the best-seller lists lately.
There are times when it does seem impossible to ignore Kennedy’s research, as well as the force of his argument. A senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council as well as chief prosecuting attorney and president of Waterkeeper Alliance, Kennedy argues that the future of America rests on sound environmental policy. Bush (as well as many cabinet members, who are blasted alongside their President) is simply not up to the task, according to Kennedy’s book. ($21.95 / 256 / Harper Collins)
A recent cover story in Parade magazine offered up photos of an eclectic group of Americans such as Jimmy Stewart, Robert Redford, Dolly Parton, Rosa Parks and Mark Twain. `Can you guess what they have in common?’ the cover asked. The story was based on a new book by James Webb called Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Changed America. All those people are of Scots-Irish descent and, in his book, Webb does an admirable job of separating the Scots-Irish from both the British and the Irish, while outlining the profound impact they have had on American history. ($25.95 / 384 pages / Broadway Books)
William Trevor just keeps on going. Alternating between short stories and novels, the master Irish fiction writer seems to be reaching the heights of his powers. His new story collection, A Bit on the Side, mines much of the same turf as his past works: the characters are usually heart-broken, reserved members of the Irish middle class.
And yet, Trevor always seems to come up with new ways to startle the reader, to reveal devastating details in seemingly mundane scenes.
Two lovers drift into and out of each other’s lives in the outstanding story “Graillis’s Legacy”
“The winter flowers lay scattered in the shadow of a secret,” the story concludes, “deception honoring a silent love.”
A Bit on the Side comes after Trevor released perhaps his most acclaimed novel yet, The Story of Lucy Gault. Lucy was a young Protestant girl in Ireland whose parents fell out of favor with local revolutionaries. When the Gaults mistakenly believe their daughter has died, they pack up and move to the continent. The trouble is that Lucy is very much alive.
The twist worked, and the Cork-born author had as good a novel as his earlier work Felicia’s Journey. With A Bit on the Side, Trevor’s short story fans can rest at ease. He remains a master of this form as well. ($24.95 / 245 pages / Viking)
Irish author Emma Donoghue has turned 18th Century London into a world of her own. Her last novel Slammerkin would have done Dickens proud in its detailed depiction of slum kids forced into grueling labor (and even worse) just so they can survive. This time around, Donoghue (who now lives in Canada) takes a look up the London social ladder with Life Mask. First and foremost, Donoghue’s canvas is larger. Life Mask approaches the 700-page mark. Yet Donoghue’s skills as a historical novelist are so sharp that you will not notice the pages as they fly by.
The first of Donoghue’s upper class subjects is Mrs. Damer, a young widow who spends her time at the eccentric (for a woman) task of sculpting. Then there is the Earl of Derby, wealthy yet horribly unattractive. Finally, there is Miss Eliza Farren, born of modest means in this class-obsessed society, who has managed to procure for herself a prominent spot at the Drury Lane Theatre.
Donoghue sets these three characters loose in a time of deep conflict and even terrorism, between the world powers of France and England. All of Donoghue’s characters ultimately are forced to confront profound personal as well as political questions. Donoghue’s strength as an author is that she is aware that there are no easy answers to the very questions she, and her characters, pose. ($26 / 650 pages / Harcourt)
Celebrated Irish chef Conrad Gallagher aims to spice up your dinner table with his handy new book Take 6 Ingredients: 100 Recipes to Create Simple, Delicious Meals.
Gallagher has worked in New York at Le Cirque and the Waldorf Astoria, as well as in France with Alain Ducasse. Peacock Alley is the name of his Dublin restaurant. In 2002 he opened Traffic in Manhattan. With credentials like that you might expect complicated meals, but Gallagher makes sure to outline a diverse array of meat, fish and vegetable dishes for people on the go.
This should sit well next to Gallagher’s previous titles such as New Irish Cooking: Recipes from Dublin’s Peacock Alley and Conrad Gallagher’s New Irish Cookery. (19.95 / 160 pages / Kyle Cathie)