Time to get down off the stage and into the street?
Should have nothing to fear: Peter Murphy. photograph: cyril byrne
FICTION:There is a great book trying to get out of Peter Murphy’s flamboyant, lyrical but patchy second novel, based loosely on real events in Enniscorthy
Shall We Gather at the River, By Peter Murphy, Faber and Faber, 263pp, £12.99
Peter Murphy can write like an angel. Well, like a bad angel – a clarification he’d probably prefer. His gaze is mischievous, and he delights in words and can nail things and people with incisive descriptions that can be startling or funny but are always lucid. He has a showman’s zest for the flamboyant, the baroque, the subverted cliche and lyrical phrase. Echoes of other writers – Pat McCabe, Angela Carter, Flannery O’Connor, Samuel Beckett – reveal his good taste. And he has a gift that is much rarer in writers than it should be: a sense of rhythm, a feel for the way sentences follow each other to carry the reader with them. Murphy is also a musician, and it shows.
This impressive display of talent lets him get away with a lot. The first and most obvious in this, his second novel after the popular John the Revelator, is a plot or storyline so intractable it’s not easy to relate.
The rather lovely title, Shall We Gather at the River, is taken from an American 19th-century gospel song in which the gathering is composed of “saints” and the cool and refreshing river is a symbol of life and the paradise to come. Murphy’s river, however, is a different kettle of fish. (The metaphor may be unworthy of him.)
The Rua is a rusty-coloured river that flows through the town of Murn, in Co Wexford. Given a malign and quasi-animate persona, it’s a voracious siren whispering and murmuring and sucking at the heart of the town as it entices people to their deaths.
That the novel is inspired by an outbreak of self-inflicted drownings that took place in Enniscorthy some years ago is no secret. To distance himself from these all-too-recent events, Murphy sets his novel farther back, assembling his characters for their suicidal journeys in the 1980s.
So far so good. But this is not a novel in which a series of stark and unforgettable deaths are examined with the steely or exploratory or even compassionate intent that it could be claimed they deserve. It’s a confection, though one made of slugs and snails and puppy dogs’ tails rather than sugar and spice. A romance in the literary sense, suffused with legends and whimsies, an adolescent fantasy from the twilight zone tinted with black. His subject was certainly a tough one to take on. And you can’t but suspect, and be sorry, that the author might have taken refuge from an interesting but formidable reality in obfuscation and invention, confident that enough chutzpah and swashbuckling will carry it off.
The story, such as it is, hangs on one Enoch O’Reilly. The name Enoch, that of a prophet in the Old Testament, is a nod to the biblical references Murphy relishes. Enoch O’Reilly is a character not now unfamiliar in Irish fiction. A mama’s boy, an only child, he’s disaffected, a solitary and a narcissist devoted to strange obsessions and ambitions. His big obsession is the radio set his father keeps in the basement and the other-worldly voices he hears on it.