Once We Sang Like Other Men review: The 12 as ordinary people

Disciples of a martyred leader hold fast to ‘fairytales and bullshit’ in John MacKenna’s stories

John MacKenna: His “writing has an unshowy humility despite the potentially epic reach of the stories”. Photograph: Piotr Kwasnik

John MacKenna: His “writing has an unshowy humility despite the potentially epic reach of the stories”. Photograph: Piotr Kwasnik

Sat, Feb 11, 2017, 06:00


Book Title:
Once We Sang Like Other Men


John MacKenna

New Island

Guideline Price:

In this collection of loosely linked short stories, John MacKenna takes the fundamental narrative of Christian doctrine – the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ – and retells it through a contemporary, humanist lens.

Once We Sang Like Other Men is narrated by each of the Twelve Apostles; some are directly named, some identified only through allusion, and MacKenna does not quote from the Bible or refer to Jesus by name. Instead, we are introduced to the shadowy figure of The Captain by his devoted followers as they struggle to make sense of the world in the aftermath of his assassination.

In the stories they tell are occasional flashes of miracle and transformation. A man, Laz, is brought back to life, for example, in an event that his disciples rationalise with pragmatic logic. However, for the most part MacKenna is preoccupied with how his acolytes can hold faith in the wake of The Captain’s brutal death, which challenges the fundamental tenets of their beliefs.

The stories unfold against a virtually unidentifiable backdrop. Occasionally specific countries are named (the US, Canada, Russia). But these are places of exile or refuge, where the men have scattered to after The Captain’s fall, not the dusty, parched landscape where they fought for freedom and where their leader met his death.

This refusal of specificity opens the stories up to a wider interpretation. The revolution the men speak of – these “circumstances that were sometimes dangerous but often predictable and ordinary” – could be any political revolution exploding in the present-day political landscape.

Failure of revolution

What MacKenna is most interested in, however, is not politics but personal histories: how The Captain’s followers tried or failed to make sense of the failure of their revolution. As Peter observes, “very often when you get to the heart of something momentous, the truth is banal.” Instead of heroics, he gives us “a bunch of shit-scared people” struggling to come to terms with trauma and to reconnect with their loved ones.

Many of the most affecting stories depict intimate relationships with young children: Charlie, who mistakes his father’s death for a game of hide and seek in Resurrection; Lynn in Sacred Heart, who reminds her father of the day’s truths as he reads his diary to her at bedtime; and the inquisitive James in My Beloved Son, who is snatched from his father just as they have reconciled. A child makes only a brief appearance in one of the most memorable stories, Absent Children. Her presence is replaced by a silence that stretches across a rural farmyard like a noose tightening around the narrator’s neck.

Indeed, silence and elision are found throughout the collection. The stories are full of gaps and suggestions that the reader must work hard to fill in, or leave to linger as a reminder of the unknowability of another’s experience. The instability of objective truth is also a theme that MacKenna returns to. For every disciple that defines The Captain “less by his deeds than by his words”, there is another who decries those words as a “shabby shroud of armour” and no balm against the “hopelessness” of life without something greater to believe in.

Fancy name for need

If the wider perception of The Captain has morphed into “fairytales and bullshit”, his closest confidants are forced to admit that this religious “belief is just a fancy name for need”, just as their own belief in The Captain expressed a need for a leader that they could not find elsewhere.

MacKenna’s writing has an unshowy humility despite the potentially epic reach of the stories. Still, there are moments of lyrical beauty: in one description of a redemptive trip to a local cemetery, he describes “a cortege of wintry trees, nodding mutely towards the ravenous gates of the graveyard”. If some of the stories (such as Say to Your Brother) fail to achieve a balance between humanity and sentimentality, others achieve a rare and quiet profundity.

Once We Sang Like Other Men is an unusual and quietly moving book that pays testament to the heroism of ordinary life.

Sarah Keating is an Irish journalist.