Wednesday, May 14, 2014

What We're Reading: New Fiction

The Temporary Gentleman, by Sebastian Barry

I don’t know what it is about being Irish that makes possible such astonishing facility with the English language, but I have long felt that some of the best writing being done today is by a group of contemporary Irish novelists I have been following for the last 20 years or so, among them Colm Toibin, Colum McCann, William Trevor, Roddy Doyle, John Banville, Bernard MacClaverty, and Sebastian Barry. The Temporary Gentleman is a story about a member of the McNulty family--Jack McNulty, brother to the hapless protagonist of Barry’s first novel, The Whereabouts of Eneas McNultly (the protagonist of a third novel, Secret Scripture, is Roseanne McNulty, the estranged wife of Jack’s brother Tom). Barry’s three other novels tell the story of siblings of the Dunne Family, including A Long Long Way, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize). All of Barry’s novels have 20th-century period settings, and examine the desultory, yet fateful, encounters of the protagonist with family history, local Irish politics, and world events.

In The Temporary Gentleman, Jack McNulty, writing from a self-imposed exile in the former British colony of Ghana, tells the story of his tempestuous life. McNulty figures in the drama of larger historical events, but his story is primarily about the recollections and regrets of his personal history, his troubled and tragic life with his beautiful wife, the love of his youth, Mai Kirwan. The title of the book refers to Jack McNulty’s temporary commission as an officer in the British Army in World War II, although of course we are to understand the term in its ironic implications as well, as we learn of the not-so-gentlemanly deeds and failings of Jack’s life.

Jack McNulty is not a very sympathetic character. He’s a heavy drinker and gambler, and seems strangely distanced from the destruction he himself has authored in his life and those of his wife and children. As a narrator, he often sounds like a bystander to his own story. Something is not quite right in his character. We are always confused as to whether the problem is that he doesn’t fully comprehend his own culpability or doesn’t fully feel it. We may feel pity for him in the end (a pity he seeks), but we are always a bit uncertain about the character and depth of his remorse. It is in the nature of the genre that our identification and sympathy must find a home in a novel, and since it is difficult for them to settle on Jack, they flow by default to the character of Mai, who emerges as the most fully realized character in this novel, the one who has suffered a fate we apprehend as truly tragic. 

Barry’s novels are all rather dark---his characters suffer from their own mortal and moral failings, as well as from hapless twists of fate. The skies are always dark, rain is frequent and heavy, the surf embroiled. This brooding atmosphere is enlivened by spectacle, a number of set pieces that are simply a tour de force of descriptive writing. Set against the darkness, there is a luminosity in Barry’s novels that comes from the lyricism of the language, the remarkable beauty of the metaphors, and the cadence of the prose. There is sadness, yes, but we read on because we are dazzled by the telling.

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