John the Revelator
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 254 pp., $25
In "John the Revelator," music journalist Peter Murphy has made a novel out of the sorties and travails of a boy growing up in a small Irish town. In fact, with its loose collection of characters, incidents and spaced-out riffs, it more closely resembles the sometimes disparate cuts on a pop album. John Devine, the protagonist and narrator, provides the uncertain voice linking these stories; yet neither stories nor voice manages to configure him as the novel's central personage.
Raised poor by a valiant mother who cleans and does laundry to support them (the father was a folk singer who broke down and went mad), John's formative encounters, which don't do much forming, include "Harper's Compendium of Bizarre Nature Facts," a reference book that sets off a pandemonium of childhood obsessions with worms and parasites. These encounters include a feverish adolescent relationship with Jamey, a dandified fellow student who models himself on Rimbaud, writes stories and engages in a kind of aesthetic semi-criminality. There are John's own scrapes with the law as Jamey's follower, and his seduction by a sexy femaleteacher in a steamed-up parked car.
These events are interspersed with a chain of hallucinations and nightmares. One of them deals with the end of the world; the many others bring on such things as monster crows whose attacks John imagines in lengthy passages that twin horror with a kind of mystical transport.
Such imaginings, windily set out, seem intended to attribute a submerged life, a third-dimensional complexity, to the narrator. They come across, though, as extraneous tagging. Because the author hasn't done enough with John as a real character, he lacks the ground to tunnel beneath. Hallucination and actual happenings are combined awkwardly in an account of a night break-in at the parish church, organized and videotaped by Jamey.
John goes wild, smashing up pews, scattering Communion wafers and defecating on the altar. Written as though this were all a nightmare, it turns out to be true enough; what is lacking is any hint of what motivated the paroxysm. The aftermath then shifts back to realist mode. John is arrested but promised immunity if he will identify the ringleader. He gives up Jamey, who is sent briefly to reform school. Deeply ashamed, John apologizes to his friend but finds him airily insouciant about it all. Even when the two of them are beaten up by a local hard man, who suspects that Jamey has informed on him to the police, Jamey shrugs it off.
The whole sequence, real and hallucinated, might be expected to play a critical role in the narrator's account of his young life. Instead, it is just one more track on the album. So is the hackneyed account of his seduction by the teacher; so, most of all, are the assorted stories written by Jamey, given to John, and reproduced here in full. They are not so much feeble as disconnected; part of a thematic and structural disarray.
It is in the character of John's mother that the writing gathers strength and coherence. A onetime rebel in her wandering life with the musician, she has channeled her passions in two directions: care for her son and her religion. Her faith, though orthodox -- she is a regular Mass-goer -- is free-spirited and bitingly voiced. The book's best writing and clearest purpose come in John's exchanges with her spanning from childhood to her death soon after he is grown.
We have the little boy trailing after her on strenuous walks, while she gives her lively accounts of his disciple namesake: "He was the only one to stay awake in the garden while Our Lord sweated blood." She tells of her son's birth. "Any extras? Harelip? Flippers?" she demanded of the doctor. Deeply depressed in the first weeks of caring for the baby, she recalls that she was tempted to put a pillow over his head.
"What stopped you?"
"You weren't baptised yet."
Smoking, drinking, dying of cancer, she is an unquelled spirit; salvaging from her ruined life with the folk singer one of his songs -- "John the Revelator" -- she bestows it on her son as a kind of raffish inheritance. When she is terminally hospitalized, John's scattery character takes on something of a shape. He spends his days by her bed; at one point sneaks her piggy-back out of the facility and into town for a last living round.
After she dies, as he lies desolately on a nearby beach, her ghost passes by and gravely advances into the sea. "Her dress floated out in a water flower shape and rose up to her shoulders, her neck, and she went under, her hair spreading like a fan, and she was gone."
Even as a ghost, John's mother is more real than anything else in the book; and it is only through her that John seems to materialize out of his vague emotions and encounters. It is not hard to think that the mother story was the one that Murphy needed to tell; and that the rest was a series of literary attachments.
Eder, a former book critic of The Times, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1987.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times