From chatty comments to chilling observations

 

FICTION: Long Time, No SeeBy Dermot Healy Faber, 438pp. £12.99

PHILIP FEENEY’S life is on hold; something is troubling him. A devastating trauma has occured. His parents and his girlfriend, Anna, now more of a family friend, are all keeping close contact while also giving him space. He lives with his mother, a nurse, and his father, a working man with a philosophical approach to life. Philip has just completed his Leaving Cert and flight is not attracting him. In addition to the various odd jobs he is asked to do, his days are filled by his ritual attendance upon his beloved Uncle Joejoe and another old man, the Blackbird. Philip also has a nickname, Mr Psyche, and, not all that surprisingly, he inhabits a dense, psychological world of nightmares and dreams.

A tragedy hovers, but Philip is trying to keep going. It is easier to be busy: “I brought water to the sick cow who was lying in the meadow looking out to sea, did three lawns after Mass, the teacher’s, the banker’s and the German’s, then I went to the wall at the back of the house. I was out there building stone for three hours. I had been at this dry-stone wall for three weeks, on-and-off, and it was good work. All you needed was a length of string, a few rocks and a sense of balance.” He is battling to remain calm. Late in the narrative he admits that “My head was tormented by words”. This entire novel is fraught with language, most of it spoken by characters united by a communal dread of imminent tragedy. Protection comes in the form of rakish, not particularly funny, wisecracks.

Dermot Healy’s new novel, his first since the gritty Sudden Times(2000), is difficult; it is slow moving and complacent, and at times dangerously relaxed, lacking the urgency of his life’s achievement to date, A Goat’s Song (1994).

Long Time, No Seeis about friendship and farewells; Healy is confident of the patience of his reader – too confident – and indulges in long sequences of banter between the characters. Yet the narrative mood is quickly established, that of a study of the ordinary in which one period of mourning may be drawing to a close while another is about to begin. Healy believes in the drama of the moment, and his fiction is one of sudden impulses. The essential tension in this narrative is the balance between allowing a story to consist of the quotidian and the alarming happenings that threaten the normal. The characters rise, have breakfast, go to work, feed the animals, converse, go to the pub and go into town. It is as if one is watching a film of one’s life, anyone’s life. Philip has found a refuge of sorts by listening to Joejoe bantering with the Blackbird. He fetches their rum and watches them as if committing it all to memory. The narrative is both celebration and lamentation.

Small-town life has been well served in contemporary Irish fiction, often brilliantly by Pat McCabe, whose genius is invariably drawn to menace. Healy is more straightforward, although he is not afraid of violence and made effective use of it as a theme in Fighting with Shadows(1985). Even within the cautious ease of this new novel there are references to a character known as the General, a man with a grudge. But the prevailing threat in Long Time, No Seeis that of time running out, and it is almost up for Joejoe and for the Blackbird. Flashes of their respective pasts, primarily their regrets, filter increasingly to the surface. Another character haunted by ghosts is the widowed Miss Jilly, who lives alone in the local big house and hopes to have a fine mausoleum built in which she may join her dead husband.

A sense of place informs the narrative, the characters react to their surroundings and it is impossible not to imagine the churning ocean and the harsh winds. Newcomers react to the beauty of the Sligo setting, and Healy juxtaposes the long-rooted locals with European visitors. But the cryptic theatricality of the prose is a problem, as are the bluff “good man” and “sound as a pound” and “fair enough” responses. There is a great deal of dialogue and detailed descriptions of arrivals and departures. It could be easily adapted for the stage. But it is excessively long – far longer than the story justifies. The first 100 pages offer relatively little to sustain one’s attention, and it is a struggle to read on.

There is no doubting that Healy is a writer’s writer, and writers will appreciate the difficulty in establishing the continuity that runs through the extravagant narrative. But for a reader it is hard going. It was not until page 157 that a point of engagement surfaced. In one of the several major set pieces, preparations are being made for having the Stations – a Mass – at a local house. It is the turn of Joejoe. In the midst of the fuss he beckons to the narrator and whispers: “Tell me this Psyche, do you ever tire of being a servant?” The narrator, who is spending his summer keeping busy, says no, and the old man persists, asking him if he is lying.

That is when it becomes clear that the narrator devotes his waking hours, if possible, to avoiding thought. But he can’t stop his mind going into overdrive. Within a couple of pages he is describing the arrival of Mr and Mrs Brady, “Mickey’s parents”; the two youths had been friends, and the Bradys extend their sympathy to the narrator.

The evenings of conversation, the small dramas such as the bullet hole found in Joejoe’s cottage, the realisation about who had fired the shotgun, the little bits of news, and the day the narrator and his father sweep Miss Jilly’s long-blocked chimney all contribute to what amounts to a formalised stream of consciousness. Da is a deep thinker, and it is he who remarks of Joejoe to the narrator, “That man is in deep grief.”

IN THE BEND FOR HOME(1996), his atmospheric memoir, Healy triumphed in the role of all-seeing observer. He also responded magnificently to his great fortune in having a colourful aunt, Maisie, a cynical romantic embittered by lost love. She ran the family cafe-cum-cake-shop with a vicious glee, tormenting all customers. Her presence gave that book a cohesive core. In this new novel Healy has actually written a love story, that of Joejoe and the Blackbird. Blackbird’s illness, stark and real, sets the scene for Joejoe’s despair. Everything else, even Philip’s initial trauma, is overshadowed by the decline of the two old friends. It is a novel of random asides, of images from nature, a hare lingering at a ditch, a dying cow, shadows on the grass. Philip’s torment gives him no peace: “And then I found myself in a dream . . . The man beside me turned into Joejoe and then into the Bird. He was not looking but talking so much he missed his footing and fell and hurt his eye. We bathed in a pool.”

Joejoe may well be the character that will be remembered. The Blackbird, with his collection of scent bottles, never quite casts a spell. He is defiant but helpless. Although Long Time, No Seeis a novel of voices, one-liners and chatty comments, the most chilling observations are invariably made by Joejoe, not the narrator. Joejoe, who trained a robin to walk on the toe of his boot, concedes that it was he who fired the gun in an attempt “to kill my ghost”. This big, wayward narrative strains and heaves and pushes, and it pitches many thematic questions, most of which Healy has answered in his narrative poem A Fool’s Errand(2010), such as why do the geese respond to a clock they don’t have? Why do the living fear the dead? And why do the dead retain such power over the living?

Healy, an experienced writer, has attempted to write a young man’s book. It doesn’t quite work. His narrator is too wise, the story too obvious.


Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent of The Irish Times