History, Stephen Dedalus famously remarks, is a nightmare from which he is trying to awake. For Paul Watkins, history is a rather more attractive proposition: a locus from which he is trying to operate. History is at once the engine and armature of his fiction. In each of his four novels he integrates a protagonist’s life into storied events from long ago and/or far away. And, for his purposes, the more exotic those events, the more colorful those locales, the better.
His first book, “Night Over Day Over Night,” follows a German teen-ager who joins the Waffen-SS in 1944. In “Calm at Sunset, Calm at Dawn,” Watkins’ 20-year-old hero works on a commercial fishing boat and encounters a world of Newport posh like something out of Scott Fitzgerald. His third book, “In the Blue Light of African Dreams,” concerns an aviator flying for the French Foreign Legion in Morocco shortly after World War I.
This predilection for the fabulous continues in Watkins’ new novel, “The Promise of Light.” It begins with a mighty conflagration that destroys a young man’s present and ends with that young man about to confront his past. The year is 1921, the place Rhode Island. Watkins’ hero, Ben Sheridan, has recently graduated from college and is soon to take up work as a bank teller. His father, the local fire chief, suffers grievous injuries fighting the blaze. What happens to the elder Sheridan breaks open Ben’s world. Indeed, it instigates his removal to quite a different world--Ireland, the land of his fathers--where, despite himself, he takes up arms and becomes involved in the struggle for Irish independence.
It’s a straightforward enough narrative, save for a peculiarly implausible subplot in which Ben befriends a wastrel patrician and suffers a blighted romance with the swell’s sister.
What Watkins does with his narrative is straightforward enough, too. He takes Ben’s story and places it within a hopped-up, boy’s-own version of history. Fires burn, men die, grenades explode, atrocities are committed, passions (nationalism, thwarted love--several thwarted loves) rage . . . and yet, nothing much seems to happen. Certainly, it never feels as though much happens. There is an Irish grayness to all this action, a Rhode Island smallness: a sense of the damp give underfoot of peat or sodden strand.
“Time thundered past someplace beyond the hedges and dunes and the sea,” Ben tells us, “while I stayed strangely motionless, the muscles of my patience growing weak.” Well, yes. Not only is that a fair precis of the impression Watkins’ novel makes, it exemplifies the sort of prose he writes: a series of simple declarative sentences inflated with adrenal adjectives and high-velocity verbs. His style is an engine with considerable horsepower (“The air clenched and burst open. Metal clanged against metal and shrapnel sliced through the brambles”) that keeps revving in neutral.
Watkins has his moments. Ben observes in a moment of grief that “pie tastes better in the dark.” He relates that shaking the hand of a womanish priest was “like grabbing hold of a glove filled with pudding.” He notes “the slow-speaking politeness between people who carry guns.” Too often, though, there is that clang of metal against metal--as when a telephone operator who is sweet on Ben inquires, “Are you coping here all by yourself?” (a question not often asked, surely, in 1921).
Oddly enough, Watkins’ publisher makes a fetish of how “painstakingly researched” his novel is. The author, Random House announces, “made four trips to Ireland, lived in the towns of Lahinch and Ennistymon, wore clothing from the period, interviewed Irish citizens and scholars, and drew on a vast body of historical literature in order to study the Irish independence movement from all angles.”
It seems unfair to quote against a book its author’s biographical summary--"wore clothing from the period”?--until one realizes the publisher thinks this is something to boast of. Instead, it would seem to be the essential problem. Might “The Promise of Light” read so flat because it’s been researched rather than imagined, worked-up rather than felt? One feels uneasy complaining about this being the case, insofar as what’s usually the problem with the work of young novelists (Watkins is in his late 20s) is just the reverse. But in “The Promise of Light,” history is ultimately a distraction in which one tries not to nod off.