"[God] invented the giraffe, the elephant, and
the cat. He has no real style. He just
keeps on trying other things."
-Pablo Picasso

Stone Soup
The literary world holds a special place for Irish writers. Their Gaelic inspired prose flows off the page as easily as it falls from the tongue. At once cumbersome and lyrical, the Irish brogue can be easy on the ears, but hard on the eyes when laid out in print. Commonly generalized as tragedy, which, considering the emerald isle's history is understandable, the Irish yarn is so much more than that. Mark Twain once observed, "Inside of the dullest exterior there is drama, a comedy and a tragedy." Although he wasn't talking specifically about Irish writing, he might as well have been, as nothing better describes the literature sprang from Irish roots.

The Green Road
by Anne Enright
W.W. Norton & Co., 2015
ISBN: 978-0-393-35280-1
$15.95, 310 pp

Upon reading Anne Enright, one gets the impression she has a gift for gab. She takes her time with characters, building them with meticulous precision until they leap off the page at you. This sort of attention to detail has won her numerous accolades, including the Man Booker Prize, and the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. With The Green Road, she continues that tradition.

The Green Road centers on Ardeevin, the name given to the Madigan estate. Although the home is nothing grand, the "estate" is real enough; a nice chunk of property which looms large as a character in itself over the span of twenty-five years in which the story takes place. The Madigans, we learn, are a complicated bunch, each running from demons - it would seem - of their own making.

The first half of the book (which the author has designated as Part One) is about leaving. Whether it's leaving home, or abandoning dreams, or literally running away from oneself, the Madigans are on the move. While its focus is on the Madigan children, the matriarch of the family is central to the plot, an immovable object in the face of change. It's a difficult subject, which Enright handles with a sense of compassion and moving lyricism.

As the novel progresses, we come to know the characters. Enright is meticulous in her writing, but with a natural ease to it. She iterates, then reiterates, peeling back a layer at a time, further revealing more of the character with each repetition. She's hypnotizing in her process, leaving the reader with a sense of surprise when we've realized how thoroughly the characters are known to us. It's a familiarity lesser writers find hard to relay.

Part Two of Enright's story takes place twenty-five years after it began. It focuses on a homecoming during the holidays, in which whatever hope there may have been for patching up the family is all but dashed. Mostly long estranged from one another, the holidays drive home a sense of failure and abandonment enough to drive everybody batshit crazy. The kids (adults now) are participating out of a sense of guilty duty to Rosaleen, their mother, and clearly only minimally tolerate her at best. Rosaleen, for her part, antagonizes them with an overriding sense of non-appreciative thanklessness:

    The [gift] was even better here in the living room than it had been in the shop and Rosaleen was almost put out, it looked so well in the winter light. She set it across her shoulders and picked at the fabric . . . Rosalyn hated being upstaged by her own clothes. It was a rule. Vulgarity she called it, but the scarf was not vulgar, it was entirely discreet . . . Rosaleen bunched up the 'lilac shawl', annoyed . . . She chucked it into the easy chair by the fireplace and was cross with herself then, because her children were all looking at her.
It's a ploy for attention, of course, and though selfish at its core, her neglectfulness is the impetus that brings into focus the priorities of everyone present. By the final page, after a Christmas like no other, though their problems are numerous and to the naked eye unfixable, the Madigans are at least looking at themselves with a heightened level of honesty. Yes, they're broken. Yes, they're dysfunctional. And yes, they may not be beyond repair.

With The Green Road, Anne Enright has proven her mettle for contemporary fiction. Her attention to character is unsurpassed; her gift for gab, refreshing. On reading her, it's easy to imagine the story being told in a brogue, lilting and thick with history. No wonder The Green Road received the Irish Book Awards' Novel of the Year.

A Star Called Henry
by Roddy Doyle
Penguin Books, 1999
ISBN: 0-14-029613-1
$14.00, 383 pp

Set primarily in the mid-late 1910s, A Star Called Henry fits snug against its historical Irish backdrop. It's a fictional account of the making of a rebel during the Irish Revolution under which the IRA was formed, eventually leading to civil war.

Cause Celebre
Roddy Doyle has created an impresario in Henry Smart, the novel's protagonist. Celebrated as a babe (the que to see him wrapped around the block) Henry represented hope for Ireland's future. That he was a large baby wasn't cause enough for celebration, "big brats were ten a penny, and cheaper," but his excellent health was. Henry exuded the confidence born of good health, with a glow like no Dublin baby before him. Barely a week out of the womb, and he was already famous.

      "Copulatory leads to copulation . . . and I don't know what that means and I'm too weary going from one word to another in this heavy dictionary which leads me on a wild goose chase from this word to that word and all because the people who wrote the dictionary don't want the likes of me to know anything."

Tall for his age, Henry joined the resistance at fourteen, passing himself off as an older lad. Born to Henry Smart (senior), and Melody Nash who met lying in the mud of a Dublin alley, Henry is created of larger-than-life pen strokes infused with an Irish mythology of the author's own making. Pen strokes that cover the slums of Dublin in an extra coat of soot, transform a child into a war hero, make a one-legged man the most fearsome fighter in the street, and spark romance under the unseemliest of circumstances:
    [Melody] felt sorry for him. No leg, no home - the only thing holding him up was his vulnerability. She saw honesty . . . She'd knocked the poor cripple onto the street, his face was bleeding, he'd no home to hop home to - and he didn't blame her . . . he was smiling. A nice smile, he was offering it, half a smile. He didn't look like a cripple. She liked the space where the leg should have been.

    She took off her shawl and wiped his face with it . . .
    - Now, she said.
    They were already a couple.

Pawn-zi Scheme
As rebellion drags on, our teenage Henry comes into his own. He rises in popularity with the recently formed IRA, but not in rank. Killing is his primary skill; his father's wooden leg his weapon of choice. He kills with the professionalism of a hired gun, the style of a street fighter, and the heart of a convert. He's surrounded by "eejits," men with no moral code who rarely think beyond killing Brits; men who gladly leave the planning of Ireland's future to others who could also use a swift kick of moral fortitude in the pants.

Henry isn't left to fight all his battles alone. In Miss O'Shea - his former school teacher - Henry finds a soulmate. As good on the battlefield as she is in the sack, they perform missions, sometimes together, usually alone, racking up kills for Irish independence. They're a formidable force whether working together or apart, at once both embraced and distanced for their effectiveness. In rebellion, a good soldier is all fine and well, but a soldier whose allegiance to a symbol supersedes his allegiance to the men planning the future is cause for concern.

In Henry, Doyle's created an Everyman hero for revolution. One loyal to a fault and unquestionably dedicated to the cause of Irish independence, but Henry's no chess player. While he plays at checkers, the men planning Ireland's future are playing chess, a discovery Henry makes late in the game, and one which will forever reframe his story. The boy who was raised in the slums where the "Dirt and grime were the glues that held Dublin together," was a thing of the past in the new Ireland. A free Ireland promised a future of justice with liberty, full bellies and glowing hearths. One need only imagine it. A free Ireland was the promise Henry had been fighting for all these many years; his fait accompli, if he can survive it.

Angela's Ashes
by Frank McCourt
Simon & Schuster, 1996
ISBN: 0-684-87435-0
363 pp

    I am always at a loss how much to believe my own stories.
              -Washington Irving, Tales of a Traveler

In 1996, Simon & Schuster published Frank McCourt's memoir, Angela's Ashes. It was his grim and moving account of growing up in Limerick, Ireland's depression-era poverty. Though originally born in Brooklyn, New York, his parents returned to Ireland after the Crash, and the death of Frank's little sister Margaret, whom family and friends alike regarded as a lucky talisman in life; a tragic reminder of the McCourt's bad luck in death. The critics loved his story, bestowing on McCourt not only the Los Angeles Times Book Award, but the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize as well. On New York Times' bestseller list for 117 weeks, everybody from critics to weekend bookworms seemed to love Frank McCourt. Then they forgot Ashes was a memoir.

Irish Eyes
McCourt's newfound popularity didn't rise from his chosen subject matter. Authors of all nationalities have been writing about extreme poverty for centuries, including the Irish. Rather, it was the vehicle which Frank employed to relay his story of impoverishment: through the innocent eyes of a child who inherited a knack for storytelling from his father.

Upon arriving in Ireland, rather than the salvation they seek, the McCourts find more obstacles in their path. A brief stay with relatives on Frank's mother's side is met with ridicule due to his father being from the North, his heavy drinking and his mother's inability to provide maternally for her children. Driven from one relative to the next, the McCourts wind up in Limerick where their search for affordable housing turns up only the most primitive of accommodations, a two up, two down (referring to the number of rooms on each floor) with the latter prone to flooding which forces the family to take up residence on the second floor, they in turn refer to as Italy for its drier climate. They christen the first floor Ireland.

Angela, Frank's mother, lives in a perpetual state of postmortem depression. She sleeps most of the time, and when awake, spends it staring down the ashes in the fireplace grate. Having lost three children - two since returning to Ireland - she is the picture of hopelessness. Malachy, Frank's father, is described in sharp contrast to his wife. He lives as if he hasn't got a care in the world, ever ready to die for Ireland whilst drinking away the family's limited resources every chance he gets. He's a man who refuses to recognize failure when it's staring him in the face, forever the optimist even though his prospects are nil. He lives in a bubble, booze insulating him from his critics which range from relatives, to the charities that are his family's life-line, to the Church itself which permeates every aspect of Limerick society. Still, Malachy remains unfazed.

Cock n' Bull
With parents such as his, and little brothers with empty bellies, Frank becomes self-reliant at a very young age. Barely in his teens, he puts his cleverness to work with the goal of socking enough money away for a ticket to America. He takes on a string of odd jobs that barely cover expenses, resorting to the occasional shoplift to make ends meet. Along the way, his knowledge of the world around him grows, and therein lies the beauty of McCourt's story. Although Angela's Ashes is a story about abject poverty, at its heart is an account of how a child living in dire circumstances without the benefit of elders steering him a course, learns through hard knocks and determination, a necessary trait in the pseudo-theocratic Irish state where just getting basic information takes perseverance:

    The dictionary says, Virgin woman . . . who is and remains in a state of inviolate chastity.

    Now I have to look up inviolate and chastity and all I can find here is that inviolate means not violated and chastity means chaste and that means pure from unlawful sexual intercourse. Now I have to look up intercourse and that leads to intromittent, the copulatory organ of any male animal. Copulatory leads to copulation . . . and I don't know what that means and I'm too weary going from one word to another in this heavy dictionary which leads me on a wild goose chase from this word to that word and all because the people who wrote the dictionary don't want the likes of me to know anything.

After publishing Ashes, McCourt increasingly found himself under scrutiny. It reads as the stuff of fiction, and therefore, according to some, it must be fictitious. It hasn't helped that he purportedly admitted to some fabrication in interviews. Understandably, when reading a biographical account we have high expectations for its accuracy, but this is a memoir, and as anyone working in the legal or psychology professions knows, memory isn't reliable. That's why trial lawyers generally rely on experts rather than eyewitnesses to make a case. (Saw that on The Discovery Channel; or was it Law & Order?) Although McCourt may have embellished parts of his account, they're improvements rather than distractions from the story. What's a good fish story, after all, without embellishment?

Regardless, Ashes is a good read. With it, McCourt displays a level of storytelling we're lucky to get from a master, let alone a former school teacher on his first time out. When writing about the past it's difficult not to wax saccharine over nostalgia, yet somehow McCourt keeps it in check, a challenge for even accomplished writers. With Angela's Ashes, Frank McCourt has arrived, delivering an often heartbreaking story of growing up in conditions no one would choose for themselves, yet he manages to keep it light enough that an upbeat finish - though logically incongruous with Frank's struggle - is not only possible, but inevitable. 'Tis.

posted 07/13/21