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Time, Gentlemen

George O’Brien

St. Patrick’s Day: Another Day in Dublin, by Thomas McGonigle, University of Notre Dame Press, 244 pp, €27, ISBN: 978-0268035389

Thomas McGonigle has published three novels. The first, The Corpse Dream of N. Petkov (1987), is a treatment of the last moments of the leader of Bulgaria’s Agrarian Party, executed by hanging in 1947. The second is Going to Patchogue (1992), the story of a day trip there and back to the town on what the natives call Longh Island where the author grew up (he was born in Brooklyn in 1944).

Now, more than forty years in the making – “Dublin-Sofia-New York 1972-2015” ‑ comes St. Patrick’s Day: Another Day in Dublin – St Patrick’s Day 1972, that is, when the narrator, one “Tom McGonigle”, returns to the city where he was once a student at UCD, although the action, if that’s the name for it, is not confined to Dublin or to the year in question, but wanders hither and yon through time and space. Headlines referring to later events, such as the hunger strikes, and an evening out with, among others, a poet by the name of Nuala and a man called Jonathan who writes history about Belfast and Ulster, earn their unpredictable though unexceptional keep as readily as do recollections of Patrick Kavanagh and lectures by “Denis” at a certain university. Spatially, while the eponymous day essentially consists of a via dolorosa taking in Grogan’s, Neary’s, McDaid’s, the Russell Hotel (where Tom is staying) and ending up in a bacchanal in Poolbeg Street, there are also side-trips to Paris, Sofia, Copenhagen, Flensburg, and other international locations, not forgetting Patchogue -- a name whose resemblance to the title of a book by, say, An t-Athair Peadar is just about the only literary connection that’s beyond this novel’s range, both in terms of names dropped and (mainly modernist) techniques adapted.

But then Tom isn’t much of a one for the Irish – for the Irish in any form, animal, human or mineral (though few minerals are in evidence on the day in question). Or rather, it’s more accurate to say that he is and he isn’t. He acknowledges attachment – by blood and also by virtue of emotional and sentimental ties – but he also maintains detachment. He knows everyone, without seeming particularly close to anyone. He’s a displaced Yank, a deracinated Paddy. These and many other contrasts (not conflicts, interestingly) equip the narrator with his presence and his uneven though ineluctable momentum, and generate an extensive series of registers which constantly give way to each other, phasing in and out with no discernible pattern, with nothing, really, but their own unavoidable multiplicity. From such layering what might be described as a collage-like portrait of the protagonist emerges, as the book’s cover suggests by featuring a piece entitled Pub Crawl Down Memory Lane by New York-based, Belfast-born artist David Sandlin. Tom is in mourning, that essentially modernist condition. He’s also a boozer, a jilted lover, an ugly American -- at least in the eyes of many of his fellow imbibers, allegedly ‑ a traveller, a loner, a writer, a littérateur and an emigrant traversing not the briny the ocean but that of his consciousness of loss. The collage view of St. Patrick’s Day, an assemblage of scraps, bits of material that have outlived their use but which are still knocking around, is also reinforced by the use of different type-faces. These too signal different registers, but they also suggest the distracted, or distractable, nature of the apprehending subject and depict the mind as a sphere through which anything might pass at any given moment. There is, then, an inveterate restlessness, or a kind of passive-aggressive attitude to direction and purpose, to the novel, so that the narrative’s stream of consciousness technique, to which restlessness is endemic, spills over into all aspects of the book, aesthetic, psychological, social and whatever you’re having yourself.

This is all fine and large in its way no doubt, and it’s interesting to find in this age of literary reaction a work still committed to the indivisibility of matter and manner. One result of this commitment is that St. Patrick’s Day flaunts much of what might be expected of it. This is not to say that the story (for want of a better term) is completely random and arbitrary. Tom’s visit to Dublin, and his ability to afford it, is one outcome of the sudden and undignified death of his Donegal-born father in an upstate New York car park. Thoughts of his father’s working life as an executive tacitly question the worth of such a career, which in the end turns out to be no more solid than the drink that lubricates the moment’s passing and then itself is passed.

The mourning note is accentuated by attempts to undercut it, such as the fingering of the grimy banknotes that sustain the many rounds stood in the course of the day. The Yank has cash, but it’s a poor thing, all in all – the novel ends on an absurdist financial (and textual) note, reproducing a cheque for half a million pounds signed by Derek Mahon. Time’s uneven current and its inscrutable value is more to the point than the supposedly invariant reliability of currency. The rounds of drinks, and the rounds of the various pubs, are only the most obvious instances of a more general notion of circulation deriving from recollections of travel and, indeed, from recollections of all sorts. An interplay of repetition and difference underlies this shifting around, as “another day in Dublin” suggests, the subtitle in addition paying a downbeat homage to, as well as establishing a distance from, the book of June 16th, 1904. This same sense also resides in Tom’s active dating life as a UCD undergraduate, which features a beauty from Réunion as well as various Europeans, and above all Barbara, a local, the moment of parting from whom, casual and unnecessary as it seems, continues to haunt him (haunting being a form of returning, which is a fundamental component of circulation). But special moments with Barbara coexist with a nostalgie de la boue for other people and places from earlier days – African students, dodgy lodgings, coffee at the New Amsterdam in South Anne Street or the Copenhagen on Rathmines Road.

In view of its mentioning so many well-known writers of the day, not all favourably by any means – and no doubt readers familiar with the scene back then will recognise many of the other personages – it might be thought that St. Patrick’s Day is a roman à clef. But there’s no clef, because there’s no one thing to be unlocked. True to the self-revealing character of stream-of-consciousness, what you see is what you get with Tom. And other characters, whatever their status, are just as much mixed bags and passers-by as he is. No particular distinction or merit inheres in being a local, a native, a national. On the contrary, although they may be at home in a certain geographical sense, the great majority of the characters seem displaced, the pub acting as a wayside chapel, a time-out from the difficulties, domestic and otherwise, of so many other nameless days. Tom has found no basis for believing that being Irish is in any way a privilege. If it is, surely St Patrick’s Day is when such a privilege would take persuasive form, one combining public affirmation with personal conviction. What we have instead is the pub and its personalities, or alternatively bands and cheerleaders from Tom’s native country. Such polarities are expressions of resistance and acknowledgement, allowing Tom to state that this may be how it superficially is but that he remains unaffiliated. And these differences are additional contexts for the confession of the remorse-free estrangement that constitutes the narrative as a whole.

In the course of the concluding bacchanal Tom is told: “It was a foolish idea coming over to Ireland to relive the past, when all grown people know the past is only in books.” Well, not only. But whatever about this remark’s accuracy, it does underline the status of time in the book, both in how it is simultaneously the medium of memory and of the present (and, as noted, there are a few flash-forwards too, bringing to mind TS Eliot’s formulation: “Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future / And time future contained in time past.”) Even the remark itself is coloured by temporality, coming too late as it obviously does. The result is that, intriguing as the presences of, say, James Liddy, Leland Bardwell, Philip Hobsbaum and related figures may be, theirs are walk-on roles, appropriate representatives of that time and place. Their names remain with us, but in themselves, like Tom himself, they are embodiments of transience, just passing through. Time is a lot more powerful than any of them are, a superior character, as it were, replete with unpredictable agency and archival authority. It might be that, as Tom is told: “You talk too much of the past and your part in it.” But there’s a strong sense throughout that one of the few sure things is that spending time is our basic enterprise, an outlay whose recompense is as dubious as it is inevitable.

Those lines of Eliot continue: “If all time is eternally present / All time is unredeemable.” Tom would appear to go along with that, at least up to a point, as with everything else. On the other hand, it also seems that acknowledging transience, as memory inevitably does, is a way of not being at its mercy. And it may be argued that such acknowledgment is the novelist’s singular office, given his engagement with duration, change, mutability, persistence, the whole chronological apparatus of story. For that reason perhaps, one of a kind though St. Patrick’s Day might be, it also glancingly gives its avatars their due – Ulysses, Under the Volcano, The Ginger Man being the most broadly hinted at cases in point. Tom does come across as a something of a latter-day Stephen Dedalus, death-haunted, recalling to the reader Stephen’s memorable borrowing: Il se promène, lisant au livre de lui-même (He strolls about, reading from the book of himself). He also has elements of Lowry’s Geoffrey Firmin, a soused consul from another country, his own state of mind. And if Tom is a peppery type of presence, the kinship between this book’s pub-crawl core and the world of The Ginger Man is plain enough.

The glimpses of these works, and numerous others, in St. Patrick’s Day help the reader find some bearings in its complicated discursive domain, and they also affirm the possibility of capturing transience while at the same time rendering it. A kind of continuity, however uneven, is thus paradoxically proposed whereby the impermanence of experience is a precondition for its retention. In that way, reading and writing are models of temporality, making their mark but always moving on to the next surprising thing. The particularly layered, stylistically unadorned treatment of this type of conceptual material is undoubtedly demanding, not that Tom or his author are going to apologise for that. Nor should they. And that’s not the only reason the book could get up people’s noses. But if in its simultaneous combinations and dislocations, its momentariness and recollection, St. Patrick’s Day provokes, in the long run it’s worth it. We could do with a bit more provocation.

1/11/2016

George O’Brien’s most recent book is The Irish Novel 1800-1910 (2015).

Space to Think, an anthology bringing together more than fifty of the best pieces to have appeared in the Dublin Review of Books since its foundation ten years ago, was published in October. Selling in the shops at €25, it is also available to order online at a special price of €20 (to collect in Dublin) or €20 + post and packing charges as appropriate for shipping to addresses in Ireland and internationally. To buy online, follow the steps from the home page of our website.

One piece featured in Space to Think is George O’Brien’s essay from 2011 on American crime fiction, “Mean Street USA”. Here is an extract:

... American civic life has had, from the word go, a built-in “we the people” element, leading to much general aggro as the people tried and tried again (and are trying still) to find out who exactly they are. This type of public environment is not conducive to good manners or to manners in the consensual sense being much on people’s minds. Needless to say, American culture tends to reflect the various ways in which striving thrives. It’s not really so surprising, then, that rather than the novel of manners, à la James, American literature has produced the novel of bad manners. And the crime novel, in its modern form an American invention, is the last word in bad manners.
American crime fiction is not merely a matter of mean streets and jaded gumshoes. From Nathaniel Hawthorne to Flannery O’Connor, crime is a central preoccupation among the great American novelists, violent crime for the most part. Literary movements such as American naturalism would be nothing without sensational homicides, as Frank Norris’s McTeague and Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy show; even The Great Gatsby needs a gun; and as is pointed out in passing in this Cambridge Companion, Norman Mailer, Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon have murder very often on their minds, while Joyce Carol Oates (strangely overlooked by Companion contributors) goes a Gothic step further. Crimes against the person are given a typically unexpected configuration by Toni Morrison, though funnily enough American fiction retaining ethnic traces can take crime or leave it alone. Bellow, Roth and Malamud do very well without the benefit of thuggery and its melodramatic baggage. Ditto novelists of Chinese, Vietnamese and Indian origin. Irish-America’s own James T Farrell has more than his share of punk-infested mean streets, but his work gives the overall impression that it’s America itself that’s criminally violent, its national image not that of Lady Liberty but of a cold and distant father whose upraised hand keeps home in constant shadow.
All this fictional blood makes one wonder if we are not seeing in such a degree of imaginative interest in violent crime a return of the repressed. Living in America, it’s always strange to see how poorly events so fundamental to the securing of the nation and the maintenance of the Union – the Indian wars, slavery, the struggles of labour, the civil rights struggle – are publicly discussed and represented. America, to repeat a banality, prefers to look to the future. Looking back is a downer – unless a sanitised version of what’s back there is available (for Civil War read Gone with the Wind). As though unconsciously aware of these omissions, the parts that are not adequately addressed in forms of public speech such as, let us say, schoolbooks, seek out a language and form of their own, well and truly breaking the consensual silence not only by means of gunfire, sirens, screams and fleeing footsteps but by a barbed, aggressive lingo whose iconoclastic idiom treats interlocutors as though they are anything but partners in consensus. This language is free speech with a vengeance. As such it suits very well the contrarian identity assumed by the dick, the shamus, the gumshoe, and is consistent with his (and, for quite a few years now, her) other characteristics – unorthodox righteousness, alertness to and indifference to social class, male sexism, often allied to prudishness and self-denial, and the notion of citizenship as a kind of crusading. Such traits come across as a rebuke to various prevailing notions of collective behaviour and experience, a self-consciously oddball set of variations on American exceptionalism, a critique both of the inert presence of mass life and its tawdry accoutrements as well as of an individualism which can only validate its worth in terms of power and exploitation.

 

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