Book Review: Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry

First of all, Happy New Year to everyone!

(Many people have been waiting expectantly for 2020 to come in anticipation of some change, but I can’t know if we’ll be better off or worse come this time next year.)

But enough about that.    Night Boat to Tangier

I want to talk about Kevin Barry’s brilliant new novel Night Boat to Tangier. A friend said that when he heard it described, it reminded him of Martin McDonagh’s film In Bruge,  and sure there are two Irishmen, hapless criminal types philosophizing on their lives, past and present, and on their long relationships with each other. For me, however, I kept imagining the two protagonists as Estragon and Vladimir, not waiting for Godot but for a long lost daughter on a ferry on which they themselves used to run drugs twenty years earlier.

As Maurice and Charlie sit in the ferry terminal in the port of Algeciras, Spain in October 2018, watching the passengers boarding and disembarking on the night boat to Tangier, their pasts comes burbling up–outlining and shaping their lives for the past twenty five years. It is a past full of lost love, violence, adventure, betrayal and exile.

But it is not necessarily the plot or the characters that is the focus of this book. It is the language itself.

There are comic turns:

Ye’d be sleeping out on the beaches.
Like the lords of nature, Charlie says.
Under the starry skies, Maurice says.
Charlie stands, gently awed and proclaims–
“The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue friut.” Whose line was that, Maurice?
I believe it was the Bard, Charlie. Or it may have been Little Stevie Wonder.
A genius. Little Stevie.*

There is darkness:

Of the dozen or so unreliable narrators narrators left in the room at this small hour, all would claim to have seen what happened next–except for Nelson, who considered himself fortunate to be on the other side of the bar–and, in fact, Jimmy Earls would claim even to have heard what happened next…and it was this ripping sound that Jimmy Earls vowed he would carry with him to the deadhouse, and with it the single dull gasp that [was] made.

And then there are passages of pure beauty:

October. The month of slant beauty. Knives of melancholy flung in silvers from the sea. The mountains dreamed of the winter soon to come. The morning sounded hoarsely from the caverns of the bay. The birds were insane again. If she kept walking, toe to heel, one foot after the other, one end of the room to the other, the nausea kept to one side only. The pain was yellowish and intense and abundantly fucking ominous. Cynthia knew by now that she was very sick.

To be sure, neither of the men is of admirable moral fiber. In fact, they are violent, treasonous, disloyal, cowardly, unfaithful drug runners.

And yet, it is the language that makes these two likable. They see the world with a sort of poetic vision–from the gutter to the stars. It is the language that gives them a method for coping with an ever-disappointing, fearful existence.

ARTS / FEATURES Kevin Barry

The novelist Kevin Barry . Photograph: Bryan O’Brien / THE IRISH TIMES

Language has always been Kevin Barry’s forte. His first novel, City of Bohane presented a post-apocalyptic Ireland which is described in a patois of street slang, Irish, and invention. In its originality it might remind one of Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. Beatlebone-the novel previous to Night Boat to Tangier–takes perhaps the most public of lives–John Lennon’s–and places a western Irish mythology upon it that is dazzlingly beautiful and outlandishly comic.

The words “daring” and “original” and “beautiful” and “brilliant” are often sprinkled around reviews of Barry’s work. They are both appropriate and insufficient. He is much more than that.

*(By the way, it was neither Shakespeare or Stevie Wonder whom Charlie was quoting. It was James Joyce.)

Book Review: Slipping by John Toomey

Sometime in late March, I jotted down the names of three books that I was interested in. “Jotted” down was the wrong word–I “entered” them onto the “NOTES” feature on my iPhone. The three were Himself by Jess Kidd, Eggshells by Caitriona Lally and Slipping by John Toomey.

In late May, I went on AMAZON to order the first book, Himself, and AMAZON suggested that I might also be interested in two other books. They were the two other titles that I had written down on my phone. Now, I know it’s easy being paranoid in these technologically, dystopic times–but nevertheless it was eerie.

However, AMAZON was right. All three satisfied my reading needs.

Toomey’s Slipping is part of the Irish Literary Series published by the Dalkey Press (from

slipping jacket_med

Book cover of U.S. edition of   John Toomey’s Slipping

whom one can usually find a gem) and it is masterful in its plotting, its narration, and its style.

Albert Johnson is a middle-aged, high-school English teacher in a small village. He is dissatisfied with the path his life has taken, disgusted with the students who sit in front of him, and disparaging of most of the colleagues who teach with him. He also blames his wife for most of this.

And he saw a way out.

When the novel begins, Albert Johnson is in a psychiatric hospital for having killed his wife. Through his psychiatrist, Johnson hires Charles Vaughan, a local writer, to write his story, initially giving him a tape that explains what he did.

Obviously, this isn’t a murder mystery; we know who did it. Rather, it is an examination of storytelling itself, with multiple narrators and shifting points of view.

To research the story, Charlie Vaughan has the tapes Johnson has provided, (against the advice of his psychiatrist), the testimony of colleagues, of the arresting officer, and a problematic student who stumbled upon the scene. He also interviews Johnson’s adult daughter. A son wants nothing to do with Johnson or Vaughan.

The story Vaughan cobbles together, however, is sketchy and unsatisfying, despite Johnson’s own philosophical ruminations about what drove him to murder. Vaughan believes there is something missing, something that is not being said.

It is in the final section where some of these gaps are filled in, where the make-up of Johnson’s mind is more clearly illuminated.

Riveting is too clichéd a word, but it fits here. The novel moves quickly, moving us through Albert Johnson’s workday, through his fantasy life, through his years of married life. We see his dissatisfaction and his delusions. And we see his deliberateness.

Toomey, who has written two previous novels, Sleepwalker and Huddleston Road, is an English teacher in Dublin and his account of a day in the life of Albert Johnson is

JohnToomey

John Toomey (from RTE website. Couldn’t find photo credit. Contact me if you know.)

humorously realistic and frighteningly real. But this single school day serves as only a backdrop to the destructive thoughts that have been swirling in Johnson’s mind for years…and which lead to his horrific outburst.

Book Review: Eggshells by Caitriona Lally… poignant hilarity

I can’t remember when I’ve enjoyed a book as much as Caitriona Lally’s Eggshells.

Eggshells

Nor can I remember a character who amused, entertained and wrenched my heart as much as Vivian, the eccentric young woman who gives us a tour of Dublin and of her unique wit and creative mind.

Vivian is unusual. So much so that when she was young her parents told her that she was not of this world and had been left by the fairies. And to be sure, Vivian has never much felt that she fits in, that she belongs to this world. So now, as a young woman, she spends her time searching Dublin for portals that will take her to that other world. She searches in the small vents built into the shelves of Trinity College Library, into the electric panel in front of the Gate Theater, in the ivy covered house on D’Olier Stree, through the small door in a department store on Grafton Street. But of course to no avail.

And her wanderings around Dublin City–with more than a jaunty nod to that other writer of peripatetic Dubliners, James Joyce–are a playful, magical tour of the city filled with word lists and wit, double entendres and non sequitors.

However, Vivian is very much alone in this world. Her parents are dead, her sister, who is also named Vivian, is repulsed and confused by her eccentricity, and she is living in the house that her dead great-aunt bequeathed to her, bordered on either side by neighbors who question her mental state.

Being lonely, she advertises for a friend, a friend named Penelope. Her reasoning is she wants to ask this Penelope why her name doesn’t rhyme with “antelope.” Plus she feels good about anyone who has three “Es” in her name.

Here is her advert that she tapes onto a tree:

WANTED: Friend Called Penelope
Must Enjoy Talking Because I Don’t Have Much to Say.
Good Sense of Humor Not Required
Because My Laugh Is a Work in Progress.
Must Answer to Penelope: Pennies Need Not Apply.
Phone Vivian.

And such a friend appears: A middle-aged Penelope who paints cats in different costumes and who has her own satchel of issues. On their second visit together–a visit filled with tea and a large amount of cookies–Vivian learns that Penelope is forty-nine years old. (In her innocence, she had guessed she was sixty.) Penelope’s age worries her since one of the reasons she would like to have a friend is so that someone would go to her funeral. And in Vivian’s mind, Penelope might die before her…so she suggests a carrot rather than a biscuit improve her new friend’s health.

A sign of how much I am enjoying a book is often measured by how many times I read out passages to the people I am around. (It is an annoying habit, I am sure.) And I have read out so many passages of Eggshells to other people that some of them probably feel they don’t need to read it. Usually it happens when I have also been laughing out loud. And laughter happened throughout.

Vivian’s wonderful mind is filled with a logic that is both skewered and sound. Of course, a corn kernel might feel lonely off the cob, lemons might feel better scattered over Lemon Street, and the taxi at Ferryman’s Crossing (with a wife named Sharon which reminds her of Charon) might be able to take her across the river to Hades.

And it is this confluence of slanted logic and the real world on which the humor is built. To a large man, whom she believes might be a leprechaun, she asks if he takes “growth hormones.” For the social-services agent who comes to see if she is actively hunting for a job, she wears a hunter’s outfit. (And startles him mightily when she surprises him with a toy gun.) To the pest on the bus who badgers her for twenty euros, she offers him all that she has with her: lemons.

But my examples hardly capture the humor, for they are missing Vivian’s voice which is filled with innocence and faith and hope.

With Eggshells, Caitriona Lally has written a wondrous first novel filled with boisterous word play, hilarious oddities, charming narrative and an unforgettable protagonist. It is

Caitriona Lally

Caitriona Lally

a magical romp through Dublin, guided by a lonely but hopeful and inventive young woman.

Eggshells is the work of an important new voice in fiction, a voice that I am greatly looking forward to hearing again soon.

 

 

 

Book Review: Himself by Jess Kidd

It was pure coincidence that I read two books in a row that were populated with ghosts. (Not my “genre” of choice.) And odder still that the second one (Artful by Ali Smith) was a book of non-fiction, literary criticism in the form of four lectures.

But Himself by Jess Kidd is an out and out ghost story. Or maybe it’s a murder mystery that just

Himself book cover

Himself by Jess Kidd

happens to have many ghosts milling about and assisting the solution. Or perhaps it’s simply that the two “detectives” have the ability to see dead people all over the place.

Your main man, Mahony–an outsider who is drop-dead handsome with bedeviling eyes and a “bad-boy” aura–walks through the woods and sees the dead everywhere. A suicide twists in a tree. A little girl with bashed-in skull befriends and walks with him. The residents of the local churchyard visit him en masse as he sits there sneaking a smoke.

And his partner, the nonagenarian, Mrs. Cauley, who describes herself as “Miss Marple with balls,” also is accompanied by various persons from the other side, including a loyal ex-lover, Johnny,  and a good priest, Father Jack, who can offer some insight into the murder.

When he was an infant, Mahony’s mother was murdered brutally in the first pages of the novel. As the murderer was preparing a grave for her, the infant was whisked away and ended up across the country in a Dublin orphanage. Some two-and-a-half decades later and spurred on by a newly discovered letter from the orphanage, Mahony returns to the insulated and isolated Mayo village from where his mother disappeared. He–and Mrs. Cauley–believe she was murdered, while the village insists that she caught a train and left town with her illegitimate child.

Set against a small-town background of fear and secrets and guilt and prejudice, the novel is the story of Mahony and Cauley’s investigation and the truth of his mother’s disappearances. And yet, there is so much more going on.

Jess Kidd

Jess Kidd (Author photo © Travis McBride)

Jess Kidd has created a cast of colorful and oddball characters to populate the little village of Mulderrig. And she has added more than a bit of humor. For instance here is the Widow Farelly consoling the mean-spirited priest who took Father Jack’s place:

“Did he ever regret his stance on this matter?”
“I believe he did in the end, Father.”
“But yet the town loved him?”
“Ah the town will be in your pocket soon enough, Father. It’s just a case of them getting used to you. How long have you been with us now?”
“Twenty -six years.”

But her strong point is the lush, beautiful writing. Whether it is the landscape of County Mayo or the towering stacks of books in Miss Cauley’s bedroom. Here is a sample:

And the trees still hold strong. Their canopies drinking every soft grey sky and their roots spreading down deep in the dark, nuzzling clutches of old bones and fingering lost coins. They throw their branches up in wild dances whenever a storm comes in off the bay. And the wind howls right through them, to where the forest ends and the open land begins and the mountains rise up.

Some might criticize certain stereotypes–the intolerant priest, the acidly old widow, the mysterious earth mother–but Kidd gets away with them; they are comforting and necessary in this insulated village mystery. And rather than distracting, the allusions to J. M. Synge’s Playboy of the Western World are entertaining. Both deal with an outsider appearing in an isolated Mayo town who beguiles most of the populace, and the similarities of characters names are amusing. But it doesn’t weaken the story or the writing.

Himself is a wonderful read. But is more than that–it is the announcement of a new writer with a marvelous imagination and a brilliant talent with words.

It is someone I will keep looking for.

Review: The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien…there are wolves among the lambs.

fullsizerender3

On the 6th of April 2012, to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the start of the siege of Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb forces, 11,541 red chairs were laid out in rows along the eight hundred metres of the Sarajevo high street. One empty chair for every Sarajevan killed during the 1,425 days of siege. Six hundred and forty-three small chairs represented the children killed by snipers and the heavy artillery fired from the surrounding mountains.
Epigraph to The Little Red Chairs

 

The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien came out in March of 2016, her 23rd book of fiction. Late to pick it up, I finished it only this weekend, January 28, 2017. While I was reading it, the United States put a ban on refugees entering the country. I wish those who had signed the papers ordering the ban had read O’Brien’s work beforehand. The unforgettable stories of refugees–which make up a very small part of the novel–put a face and a family and a humanity on these very people trying to escape the most unimaginable horrors. And the horrors themselves become real on the page.

However, I am sure that those in power have little time or inclination for reading.

In the 1990s my extended family–a few of my sisters, my mother, my auntie–as well as a good number of friends had begun watching a BBC series called Ballykissangel. (Run on various Public Television stations.) It was really no more than an Irish soap opera in a little town in the southeast of Ireland, yet the characters were memorable and well-drawn, their village ways often intruded on by the outside world and their own insular in-fighting propeled the story.

It was this show that I was reminded of at the beginning of The Little Red Chairs:  A lovely, charming Irish village with likeable characters visited by a elegant and charismatic stranger from the outside. But in this case, the stranger is the incarnation of evil.

One night, the simple village of Cloonoila in the west of Ireland is visited by a strange man. Dressed in a long black coat and with a flowing white beard, he stops at the local pub to inquire about finding lodgings. The barman who is idle, as it is early yet for the normal crowd, chats the stranger up and finds him “an out and out gentleman.” What surprises him, however, is his business card: Dr. Vladimir Dragan, Healer and Sex Therapist.

As soon as the visitor leaves, the pub fills with a crowd asking for information about the strange and elegant visitor, and it is a crowd out of central casting: the policeman, the ex-schoolteacher, the widow, the town punk, etc. You can imagine how the fact that he advertised himself as a “sex therapist” sets this town atwitter.

But nevertheless, they are enchanted by this wonder that has stumbled into their lives.

And the doctor is truly magnetic. Everyone, particular the women, is soon charmed and fascinated by him. He wins over the local priest and his landlady, sets up shop in an out-of-business dress shop, and offers the town his services. His first customer is a relatively liberal nun, Sister Bonaventure, who has come for a “medicinal massage.” (She is too embarassed to tell her fellow sisters how electrically alive she felt afterwards.)

His most important patient, however, is Fidelma, a 40-something women, married to a much older man, who longs for a child having miscarried twice, but sees that her chances are dwindling. The two become lovers, and soon Fidelma finds herself pregnant.

But before she can tell him, however, he is discovered, arrested and brought to an international tribune in the Hague. The stranger is the notorious war criminal known as the Beast of Bosnia. (O’Brien’s fictional Vladimir Dragan is largely based on Radovan Karadzic, the Butcher of Bosnia, and the retelling of his atrocities are a stark reminder of the bestial, sadistic violence that humans can visit on one another.)

Immediately after his arrest, Fidelma is assaulted and left for dead by three of his compatriots. When she is found, after she has recovered, she is discarded by her husband and shunned by her town. And she understandably falls apart, not so much from love lost, but because she has been touched by such unimaginable evil.

The second half of the novel follows a lost and disgraced Fidelma in London.  She walks among the refugees, the homeless, the downtrodden. She hears their stories, but she cannot share her own. She has not been brutalized like they; she has slept with the devil. And she cannot feel clean.

Until she faces her tormentor.

860-irish-book-awards-20091-752x501

Edna O’Brien at the Irish Book Awards

Edna O’Brien has been writing for more than fifty years and has garnered most of the awards that a writer can hope for. From her first novel The Country Girl to this last she has written mesmerizing tales that look at modern life cleanly and honestly–with it all its indelicacies and horrors on full display.

On my shelf, I noticed that I have five titles by O’Brien, ranging through the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s. I have not read much of her in the last two decades, but I have read her a lot. It is rare for a writer to hit his/her peak at the latter end of one’s career, but this is what O’Brien has done. I can honestly say that The Little Red Chairs is a masterpiece: blending Irish charm with human depravities, human grotesqueness with the capacity for great love, the private stage and the public arena.

The Little Red Chairs is an important book, a wonderful book, a highly readable book.

 

Please Note: I decided on this book after reading the Christmas NYTimes Book Review where it interviewed various writers, artists, thinkers etc. on what books they had read in 2016. The writer Maxine Hong Kingston was one of several who had read this book. However, she noted that she had to skip over the torture parts. There are two of them, and they are difficult, but are probably not the worse you have read or seen.

Book Review: Beatlebone by Kevin Barry (In where John gets wisdom from a seal in the West of Ireland.)

Seal and John

The seal and John talk on the beach at Clew Bay                                                                                                          2016 by jpbohanno

And I’ll tell you another thing.
Go on?
All this …
He swings his head to indicate the world beyond–he’s got a fat stern head like a bouncer.
Fucked, he says.
You don’t mean…
I do, John. It won’t last.
You mean everything?
The works, he says.
But it sounds as wherks.
The wind, the waves, the water, he says.
But it sounded as wawteh.
It’s all in extra time, he says. It’s all of it fucked, son.
Mostly what John cannot get his head around is the Scouse accent.

And so it is 1978 and we are in the West of Ireland in the town of Newport in County Mayo. We have booked a B&B in the town before heading out to the uncle’s farm, knowing that he and Ana and Carmel and Tony would insist that we stay with them. But we are twenty-four and will not be bridled. That night there is a ceilidh in the local pub and all the aunts and uncles and cousins and friends–long heard of but never met–gather and we the Yanks are the guests of honor. We crawl back in the wee hours but once again in the morning the whole crowd is together at Mass and when we leave we speak to a few new faces on the church steps which gives the priest time to beat us to the pub.  Two nights earlier in Kerry we had played guitar in an old sheep-farmers pub, but the caravan of hippies that showed up with their instruments wanted only country-and-western which was not my strong suit. But I was able to give them some Woody and some Hank nevertheless, and then a few rebel songs. It was a long and dangerous night on the Kerry road.

And at the same time, unbeknownst to me, John Lennon was in my uncle’s town, hiding, according to Kevin Barry’s brilliant novel Beatlebone. I would have loved to have met him, but in the novel, he was not in a very good state of mind. And he was trying very hard to stay under-the-radar.bookcover

The novel is built on the fact that in 1967 John bought Dorinish Island, one of the many small islands off the west coast of Ireland. He had great plans for it, but few of them succeeded. And he only visited it a few times.

But now in Beatlebone, it is a decade later, John’s creativity seems to have flat-lined and his life consists of baking bread and raising his young son, Sean. He rarely leaves his New York City high-rise. He is not feeling right. He has been through Primal Scream therapy, but is still forever haunted by the father who abandoned him and the mother who lived around the corner from the aunt who raised him.

And so, he comes to Ireland to spend some time on his island and to heal himself.

Neither of which is an easy task to complete.

John is chauffeured by an irascible driver named Cornelius O’Grady, who very well may be a shape-shifter and who has taken the responsibility to hide John from the press, which has been alerted that he is there in the West.

Cornelius is open and honest and uncowed by his famous fare. In fact, his advice and wisdom and observations show no sign of tact or concern. And his and John’s conversations are great fun. (At one point, Cornelius convinces John to grease back his hair, wear Cornelius’s dead father’s eyeglasses–he is already wearing the dead man’s suit– and say that he is his stuttering cousin Kenneth from England. All so that they can go undetected into a pop-up moonshine pub in the hills of Mayo.)

It is after escaping the hotel that Cornelius has stashed him in and spending the night in a cave on the beach that John has his conversation with the seal and where he realizes his new album BEATLEBONE. He maps the entire thing out in his head before he is gathered up by Cornelius. He is sure that it will be the album that will change his reputation, his legacy forever.

As I was reading Beatlebone for the first hundred pages, I wanted to text, e-mail, call friends and tell them that no more novels need be written for this is the definitive example. (I lean towards hyperbole.)  The language itself is exquisite and daring and

ARTS / FEATURES Kevin Barry

The novelist Kevin Barry. Photograph: BryanO’Brien/IRISHTIMES

imaginative. And that is what one would expect from Kevin Barry, whose greatly awarded City of Bohane was a tour-de-force of underworld argot and Dublin slang positioned in a post-apocalyptic Ireland.

Beatlebone is a novel that is so fresh, so funny, so beautifully amazing and accurate that one finds oneself reading out passages to anyone who listens. (Another fault of mine.) There is one oddly placed chapter where the author talks about his research for the novel that, while fascinating, might better have been placed  at the end or the beginning of the novel. But that is a minor quibble.

The rest is perfect. So much so, that many may give up writing fiction entirely.

The Auld Triangle for St. Patrick’s Day

I was organizing a bit of a  celebration of Irish poets for St. Patrick’s Day at my school, and I figured I might contribute by singing a tune or two. Really, I was only going to do an a capella version of “The Auld Triangle”–the wonderful song/poem from Brendan Behan’s play The Hostage.

Brendan-Behan

Brendan Behan

And “The Auld Triangle” was in my mind because I had decided to sing it tonight (the 17th) at Steven’s Green. My old band was playing there and I usually get up and do one or two songs with them. And “The Auld Triangle” was what I was thinking.

When a colleague e-mailed to ask if he could bring a penny whistle to the poetry thing I told him my plans. He wasn’t familiar with the tune, but said he would look it up on YouTube. I don’t know what he found–Luke Kelly’s version with the Dubliners is the first hit–but I went and found this Ceiliuradh (celebration) from 2014 at the Royal Albert Hall.

This video captures everything that should be celebrated about being Irish: it is cross-generational, it revels in its history, it enjoys itself and others. The camaraderie among the players–Donal Lunny, Andy Irvine and Paul Brady (all once members of Planxty), Imelda May, John Sheehan from the Dubliners, Lisa Hannigan, Glen Hansard, Elvis Costello, Conor O’Brien from Villagers–is infectious and joyful.  But moreso it is the audience–an audience joyously celebrating its heritage in the “veddy-proper” Royal Albert Hall.

I watched the video three times and became more choked up with each viewing. Happy St. Patrick’s Day–watch the video here.

 

Book Review: Life Interrupted: An Unfinished Monologue by Spalding Gray

A friend of mine, who had read my post on worrying about too much fiction in my reading diet, met me for coffee the other day with a bag full of books.  Some he gave to me. Others he lent.  I started the first one yesterday around 5:00 and finished it before finally turning the lights out on the day.

Cover of Life Interrupted/i>

Cover of Life Interrupted/i>

(By the way, my worries were groundless: Out of the last seventeen books I read, 7 were fiction, 6 were non-fiction, 3 were collections of poetry and 1 was a play.)

Anyway, Life Interrupted is a wonderful collection that includes the title monologue plus two small companion pieces by Spalding Gray.  These were the last pieces Gray was working on, still writing and ironing out, before ending his life in 2004. Filling out the volume is a series of remembrances given at two separate memorials to Gray, remembrances by fellow actors and writers, agents, producers, friends, and family. These are sincere, warm, and humorous reflections on a man who himself was sincere, warm and humorous.

The centerpiece, “Life Interrupted” recounts the horrible car accident and subsequent hospital stay that Gray experienced in Ireland in the summer of 2001. His account of the events before the accident seem to presage (at least to him) that death was everywhere: they were in the town of Mort in County Offaly, next to a monastery where gravediggers were stopping for a cigarette break, in the home of a host who himself had died two weeks earlier and from which, on his walk that morning through the surrounding countryside, Gray had encountered a dying calf.

He had tempted fate, he felt, because he told people he was content–happily married and enjoying fatherhood.  His work had always revolved around anxieties, fears, conflicts, disasters. Now, he told someone  that morning, he’d have nothing to write about. He was simply too happy.

Boy was he wrong about having nothing to write about.

His stay in the hospital, his transference to another, and then to another is close to slapstick. His detailed observations of his Irish fellow-patients, of his care-givers (a large transvestite with emerald green fingernails comes through the wards offering tea and toast), of the facilities themselves is wickedly funny, especially if you are not yourself experiencing it.

But the injuries were quite debilitating.  A smashed hip caused him transference to one hospital. A large dent in his head sent him to another. There it was discovered he had a shattered orbital bone which was  allowing open passage to his brain. A plate needed to be inserted and the bone fragments removed from his brain.  He chose to fly back to New York for that procedure.

If all this sounds morbid, it is not. Like Gray’s more famous monologues, Swimming to Cambodia, Gray’s Anatomy, The Terrors of Pleasure, it is trenchant in its observation of life and life’s quirks. And extraordinarily funny.

The other two pieces, “The Anniversary” and ” DearNew York City” are much shorter. The first typical of his rambling, tangential style. The second a sweet paean to New York City in the aftermath of the attacks on the twin towers.

Spalding Gray and his entire stage setting

Spalding Gray and his entire stage setting

But by then, Spalding was in intractable pain–psychically and emotionally. He had returned from the accident in Ireland a changed man, and the demons he once tempered through his art were getting the better of him.  On January 10, 2004 he was reported missing. In March, his body was found in the East River.

But again, this is never a morbid book. Gray’s pieces are funny and clever, and every reader will find him or herself nodding in agreement at the outrageous details that Gray observes.

And even the memorial speeches that finish the book are more upbeat than not. They recount Gray’s generosity, his curiosity, his love of fatherhood, and his kindness. Each speaker genuinely feels that he or she has been blessed to be considered Spalding Gray’s friend, to have spent time with this gregarious and wonderful man.

In a way, reading the book, one gets to experience the same.

In 2010, six years after Spalding Gray’s death, the director Steven Soderbergh put together a documentary on Gray and his art entitled And Everything is Going Fine. It is a wonderful introduction to the man who was a consummate storyteller, an entertaining man to spend an evening with.  Here is the trailer:

Book Review: TransAtlantic by Colum McCann–the world continues spinning.

National Book Award Winner, Colum McCann

National Book Award Winner, Colum McCann

Around this time last year, a friend of mine lent me a paperback copy of Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin. It was nothing short of masterful, an eloquent novel filled with beauty, wit, humor, and wisdom–and a helluva story as well. A variety of personal histories are threaded around the dazzling 1974 tight-rope walk of Philippe Petite between the World Trade Towers and set against the more resonant chapter in the Towers’ history, with the tragedy of 9/11 looming in the background. The writing was dizzily beautiful, every page an extraordinary read.let the great world spin

When I returned to work at the beginning of the school year, I learned that many of my colleagues were also reading McCann’s novel. And each of them held the same high opinion.
Now, this summer I was excited for the release of McCann’s latest novel, Trans Atlantic. And my anticipation was well worth it.
Like the previous work, McCann’ new novel is steeped in history, although this work stretches from 1847 to 1998 and concerns three separate stories of historic figures who have traveled across the Atlantic.
The novel begins in 1919 with two pilots, Alcock and Brown, both veteran RAF flyers, about to embark on the first transatlantic flight. The two leave from Newfoundland for Ireland, with a thermos of tea, a few wax-papered sandwiches, a load of mail, and a lot of gumption. At one point, close to their end point then get caught in an enormous cloud. They lose their perspective, not knowing what’s up or down, what’s left or right, The only way to survive is to go into a spin–a dangerous thing in itself. But the ultimate fly out and land in a bog field in Galway. The soft earth swallows the nose of their plane.
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In fact, “spinning” is a theme that plays greatly in this book–seemingly carrying on a theme outlined in the last novel.
The second story comes seventy years earlier, and Frederick Douglas, the escaped slave, has traveled to Ireland to promote his book. (Although he had tried to book first class passage, he had been threatened and made to sleep in steerage.) In Ireland, however, he is feted and adored by the Anglo-Irish; he gives speeches to large audiences, garners great donations to send home to the abolitionist movement and his book sells well. But he too feels he is spinning. At one point, he even refers to himself as a tightrope walker (he says “funambulist”–I had to look it up.) Again we are echoing the tropes of the last novel.
Douglas is “spinning” because while he is being celebrated for his passion for equality and the end of slavery in America, he witnesses the utter horror of the starving Irish, starving while rivers of food, livestock and goods are exported to the rest of the British Empire. (Ireland led the British Empire in beef exports during the years of the potato famine!) It is the beginning of the potato blight, and Douglas is greatly affected by what he sees–the men whose faces are brown from eating bark, the woman whose arms are like ropes asking them to take care of her dead infant–affected by the disparity between the Anglo overlords and the downtrodden Irish.
On stage, he meets and joins the great liberator, Daniel O’Connell, but when he later expounds O’Connell’s beliefs at table, his host pulls him aside and tells him not to “bite the hand that feeds him.” Douglas’ tightrope-walk is to embrace justice and freedom for his people, while keeping silent about the horrors of Ireland in the 1840s. The one will bring funds and awareness to the abolitionist movement back home; the other would dry those funds up. It is a dizzying conundrum.
The third story takes place in 1998 and follows George Mitchell as he jets back and forth across the Atlantic negotiating what would become the Good Friday Peace Accord. Mitchell has been picked by President Clinton to lead this historic conference, and, aside from the constant jetting back and forth, he feels his head spinning from the various participants in the process: the separate governments, the various paramilitary organizations, the political parties, the loyalists, the nationalists, the Gaels, the Unionists, etc.
Here is the world that Mitchell is trying to straighten out, trying to stop from spinning further out of control:
The Battle of the Boyne. Eniskillen. Bloody Sunday. There was a clue in every detail. Gary was a Prod. Seamus was a Taig. Liz lived on the Shankill Road. Bobby on the Falls. Sean went to St. Columba’s. Jeremy to Campbell. Bushmill’s was a Protestant whiskey. Jamesons for Catholics. Nobody drove a green car. Your tie was never orange. You went for holidays in Bundoran or you went to Portrush. Fly you flag. Pick your poison. Choose your hangman.
Added to this, the ex-senator, is an old father. At sixty-four, his son is only five months old. Talk about your head spinning. In the five months of his son’s life, Mitchell has been home less than twenty days–his transatlantic treks becoming more and more urgent. (Mitchell did this for two years and received zero salary, just expenses.)
All three stories–like the stories in Let the Great World Spin–are threaded together in a marvelous tapestry of history and generation, of perspective and connection. Four generations of women–from the scullery maid who met Douglass in 1846 and emigrated on a coffin ship to America to her great, granddaughter shaken but unbowed by the Troubles that George Mitchell is striving to repair–weave their story through the historic narrative.
And the language is exquisite. The streets of New York, the light on the town of Cove, the sky above the Atlantic, the horrors of a Civil War field hospital, the ice fields of Minnesota, all are described with details that are both lyrical and true. The inner and outer lives of both the historic personages and the fictional characters are drawn with verisimilitude and generosity. And the story itself is affirmative and moving, profoundly moving.
In an NPR interview after Let the Great World Spin won the National Book Award, McCann implied that he now thinks of himself as a New York writer. That may be so. But the transatlantic tug is a strong one, and his Irish way with words is very much still serving him well.
Find the book and read it. It is that good.