At Swim-Two-Birds, Guinness, and Finn McCool’s Arse

Giant's Causeway

The Giant’s Causeway
–Carved out by Finn McCool

In the mid-nineties, the Guinness company ran a contest that entailed writing an advertisement within a certain number of words.  First prize for the winning ad was a pub in Ireland, and you could see the pubs themselves on-line. (Winning this prize is the impetus of the plot of the novel The Night Swimmer)

Anyway, I remember my entry and remember loving its major image…150 orphans playing handball against the wide girth of Finn McCool’s arse.

Obviously I didn’t win. (I arrogantly told myself that I didn’t win the contest because it was run by American advertisers who didn’t pick up on the allusion!)

ATSWIMTWOBIRDS And I remembered that ad because the image came from Flann O’Brien’s novel,  At Swim-Two-Birds. And last week I began a post with a poem “The Workman’s Friend” that came from the same novel. That post got me nostalgic for O’Brien’s work. A man of many pseudonyms, O’Brien is best known for the comic novel At Swim-Two-Birds, although my funnest memories are of The Third Policeman and The Poor Mouth, the latter which O’Nolan wrote in Irish as  An Beal Bocht under the pen name Myles na Gopaleen. (And both of which I first read in Connemarra and Sandymount respectively.)

At Swim Two-Birds is a rich novel of basically three stories, a meta-fiction in which a character created by the protagonist writes a novel from which his characters gang together with other characters in the novel to avenge their creator.  It starts with a university student, who spends more time in his bed and in the pubs than in the classroom. Besides drinking, the student is also writing a novel about a man named Dermot Trellis, a middling writer of Westerns. It is his characters who intermingle with each other, who plot against him, and who attempt to live their lives apart from their author’s intentions, after they drug him.

All of this is mixed with a great deal of Irish mythology and ancient poetry (wryly translated by O’Brien himself). From McCool to Mad King Sweeney, from pookas to fairies, an entire ancient world enters this most modern of novels and interacts with O’Brien’s and Trellis’s fictional creations.

To say there is a circularity to the plot is perhaps inaccurate, and certainly understated.  It is more like a mobius strip in another dimension.  One thing turns on another to make way for other things that reflect on something else. This jibes very much with the Greek epigraph which translated means “For all things change, making way for each other.”  For yes, indeed, one character after another makes way for one other character after yet another.

But most memorably, it is laugh-out-loud funny.

So I began re-reading At Swim-Two-Birds again this week and  I started thinking of comic novels in general.

I feel they are best enjoyed by the young.

Think The Gingerman and Catch-22. Think Tom Jones and Confederacy of Dunces. Think Lucky Jim and Reuben, Reuben.  Each presents a hero who is outrageously set up against the straight-laced establishment, whether it be the military bureaucracy, the world of academia, or society in general.  And each hero takes part in the most outrageous antics–antics that only a young soul could aspire to and believe in.  It was once said that an uncle of mine in the army tried to received a medal buck naked, much like–and before–Yossarian in Catch-22. (Unlike Yossarian, he was thrown in the brig.) For my 21st birthday, a good friend of mine wanted to rent a kangaroo suit for me to go bar hopping in, as Sebastian Dangerfield did in The Gingerman.  I still chuckle at the peccadilloes that the Scottish poet Gowan McGland gets himself into in the uptight Connecticut suburbs in Reuben, Reuben. (Apparently, the plot was based on Dylan Thomas’s drunken stay in the town in the 1950s.)

But these antics and nose-thumbings are the actions (and dreams) of younger men.  And, also, the world has changed.  I remember once reading The Gingerman on a bus and being accosted by a woman who yelled that Sebastian Dangerfield was the most misogynistic character in all of literature.  I had to admit she was right. In fact, I’d go one further: he is one of the most despicable anti-heroes of all time.  Yet, he is still extraordinarily funny.

But, young or old,  the truth of  all comedy is a certain sadness mixed with the high-jinx. Perhaps the perception of each changes with age–but they both are undoubtedly there. They both need each other.

And so, once more I am churning through At Swim-Two-Birds, and I am still laughing out loud.  I just hope that there is no one on my bus protecting the interests of characters who are thought up by characters who are thought up by characters.  Cheers.

Music Review: Tom Jones’ Spirit in the Room: “There’s a Lot New, Pussycat!”

tomjonesI can’t believe I’m doing this. But I am.  I am reviewing the latest Tom Jones album.  Mainly because it’s extraordinary.

Remember when Johnny Cash did that Nine Inch Nails cover produced by Rick Rubin and accompanied by that powerful video, and how every hipster coffee shop around now has a Johnny Cash tune playing on its sound system about once every 20 minutes?  If you don’t remember, here it is:

Well, Tom Jones is doing the same thing. He has left behind the Las Vegas glitz and the sex-god personna of his past (he parodied himself in Mars Attacks, for god’s sake!) And he is choosing songs that give resonance to his powerful voice.  Like a old bottle of Laphroaig that announces itself with a blast of peat smoke against your throat, Tom Jones voice is aged to perfection. And the lyrics he’s delivering add to that agedness, to the gravitas.Spirit+in+the+Room

Produced by Ethan Johns and covering songs by Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Richard Thompson, Odetta, Paul Simon and McCartney, among others, Spirit in the Room presents Jones stripped down and honest. Just as likely to be accompanied  by a single acoustic guitar or a tinkling piano as a full-tilt-boogie band, Jones dives into the blues, gospel, and roots music.

And again, he has the voice to do it: this time, however, one hears more of the Welsh ditch-digger than the nightclub lounge singer.  And in my opinion, that’s a vast improvement. He is authentic, he is wise, he is ruminative.

Jones’ cover of Cohen’s “Tower of Song” is every bit as good as Cohen has ever done it. One hears the pain of age, the pain of wisdom.

Richard Thompson’s “Dimming of the Day” is one of my top ten favorite songs ever (I own recordings by Thompson, Bonnie Raitt, the Corrs, Emmylou Harris, and a wonderful version by the short-lived band, Danko, Fjeld and Anderson) and I was excited to see that Jones included it here and that he does it well.

His voice smooths out Waits’ growl, roughs out Simon’s baritone and turns Dylan’s “When the Deal Goes Down” into a rueful waltz that reminds me of Jagger’s version of “The Long Black Veil” with the Chieftains. And his version of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Soul of Man” is almost threatening and is as jagged as the guitar that centers it.

I have always felt that Tom Jones was a bit schmaltzy but, to be fair, I never gave him much of a listen. He has always had a powerful voice, but his delivery was always a little more polished than I preferred, every end note seemed elongated, every word seemed to carry the same weight.  He always seemed to be overdoing what I saw was essentially an outdated vibrato.

But I was wrong or he has changed or I have changed.  Because Spirit in the Room is quite an achievement.

Now, I’ll  probably start hearing him every fifteen minutes in the coffee shops I hide in!

♦     ♦    ♦    ♦    ♦    ♦    ♦

Here is Tom Jones covering Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song,” the first track on the album:

Book Review: The Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser


Errol Flynn as Robin Hood (1938)

Guy Williams as Zorro (1957-1962)

Guy Williams as Zorro (1957-1962)

As a child I had two heroes–characters whom I would pretend to be, jumping off walls, running in alleys and woods, with friends or by myself. The one was Robin Hood. The other was Zorro. These were my heroes–and I’m sure for a variety of reasons. They both were rebels, outsiders fighting against established tyranny. (The evil Prince John in the former case, Spanish rule in the latter.) Robin Hood fought for the little people (the put-upon Saxons) as did Zorro (the colonized Californians.)

Both were dashing swashbucklers and always more cunning and cleverer than their enemies. They were both perfect role models for a young boy, for in addition to their skill with swords and bows and horses, in addition to their noble goals and pure hearts, they were gentlemen. And for some reason that appealed to me. (Probably for the same reason why I believe God should sound like Cary Grant in all portrayals!)

As I grew and my reading advanced, I found other such characters that appealed to me: The Three Musketeers, The Scarlet Pimpernel, even Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities. Unwittingly, I was drawn to those characters who punctured the established hypocrisy and tyranny and who stood up for the little guy, the oppressed, the wronged.


Albert Finney as Tom Jones (1963)

And then I discovered Tom Jones. His skills were nowhere near as impressive as the others–although he was a great sportsman, a horseman, and a lover of life–but his charm and his concern for the weak and put-upon were similar. And he was the ultimate outsider–he was a bastard, found lying in the bed of the benevolent Squire Allworthy. Tom’s enemies were the hypocritical upper class who resented his being taken in by the squire, and who, in a way, both condemned and envied his life-loving ways. He was easy to root for. Certainly, he had his faults, but even these faults could be explained away. And in the end, he one-upped the toffs who had persecuted him–affirming life over priggishness.

So where is this all taken me? To a “hero” I can’t abide.

A friend of mine, a writer and comic in Brooklyn, had often asked me if I had ever read any of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman novels. I hadn’t, but promised I’d look into them. But I never got around to it. Finally, as a gift last Christmas, he bought me the first novel, Flashman.

Book Cover of Flashman by George MacDonald Fraiser

Book Cover of Flashman by George MacDonald Fraiser

I wanted to like it. But the hero was different from my past heroes in an important quality: he was part of the ruling classes, an imperialist, an Englishman lording it over the Empire on which the “sun never set.” A bit of a wild oat–the character Sir Harry Paget Flashman, first appeared in Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s Schooldays, as one of Tom’s classmates who was expelled for drunkenness– Flashman desires to tell his side of the story and move forward. (Indeed, Fraser cleverly takes this very minor character, fleshes it out and runs with it–for more than a dozen novels.) But even Flashman describes himself as “a scoundrel, a liar, a cheat, a thief, a coward—and oh yes, a toady.”

Upon expulsion from school, he seduces (and beats) his father’s mistress; his father buys him a position in the army, and from there his (mis)adventures begin. These adventures could be a lot of heroic fun (ala Barry Lyndon), except it is all coming from the wrong perspective–from the view of those in charge. And because of that assumption of superiority, Flashman is as prejudiced and arrogant as any British officer could be at the time. And I found it uncomfortable to read. The Indians and Afghans and Irish and Italians are all stereotyped and all looked down upon and insulted. And they fare much better than the women; for the women–no matter what nationality–are not even human but mere objects for Flashman’s seductions. And he is completely unfeeling in his disposal of them.

Exotic locales, derring-do (though Flashman runs from more battles than he partakes in), and a flip irreverence is often a fun entertainment. But my heroes fight from the bottom up…not the other way around. Falstaff, who holds many of the same characteristics as Flashman, is much more likeable–but that can be because he is not an imperialist, a man who believes his own entitlements. To be honest, I simply don’t like Flashman, never mind the book.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Ironic coincidence….

There is a scene in Flashman (1969) when Flashman has been transferred from Calcutta to Afghanistan. He is explaining the condition there. Ironically, it sounds very much like Afghanistan history over the past four decades (if you change the nationalities of the forces involved). Here is what Flashman says:

“The reason we sent an expedition to Kabul, which is in the very heart of some of the worst country in the world, was that we were afraid of Russia. Afghanistan was a buffer, if you like, between India and the Turkestan territory … and the Russians were forever meddling in Afghan affairs.”

Then, ” the British Government had invaded the country, … and put our puppet king, Shah Sajah, on the throne in Kabul, in place of old Dost Mohammed, who was suspected of Russian sympathies.”

“I believe, from all I saw and heard, that if he had Russian sympathies it was because we drove him to them by our stupid policy; at any rate, the Kabul expedition succeeded in setting Sujah on the throne, and old Dost was politely locked up in India. So far, so good, but the Afghans didn’t like Sujah at all, and we had to leave an army in Kabul to keep him on his throne. It was a good enough army,…but it was having its work cut out trying to keep the tribes in order, for apart from Dost’s supporters there were scores of little petty chiefs and tyrants who lost no opportunity of causing trouble in the unsettled times, …”

I don’t know about you but this summary of the world in 1839 sounds eerily familiar to me.