Look at any review of an Irish novel and you're likely to find the same worn adjectives--"charming" and "lyrical." But that's starting to change. Irish writers, north and south, are pushing into and beyond Beckett territory and none more so than Eoin McNamee. After his first novel, Resurrection Man, sent reviewers scrambling for new adjectives to describe his way with language--"fierce," "chilling," "complex," "evocative," "gritty"--he presents, under one cover, a pair of unforgettable novellas: "The Last of Deeds and Love in History."
Both stories will send the Northern Ireland Tourist Board into a frenzy of damage control. There is bleakness, blackness and murder here. The sun, when it makes a rare appearance, is a "great big bloody egg."
In "The Last of Deeds," the narrator, unnamed and Catholic--a "Taig" in the Protestant parlance of the North--has a fling with a Protestant girl, Sharon. His pal, Deeds, tangles with young Glennon, son of Albert Glennon, an all-powerful local businessman.
Deeds' other friend, Jammy, is beaten by young Glennon and his "Prod" pals. The fighting never ceases: Young Glennon is beaten by Deeds; the narrator is beaten by Glennon for going with Sharon. When Jammy is later killed by Glennon, Deeds sets out to burn down the Glennon house with petrol bombs but manages to incinerate himself.
Such bare bones of a plot give no hint of McNamee's gift of language, his almost casual way with horror. "The Last of Deeds" is a tale of cries, whispers and savagery--and wonder at how it all started. That's what Deeds says: "It's hard to tell when things start." We observers know it started centuries ago. Deeds and his narrator friend have no vantage point, no sense of history. Aimless, they roam the streets of a town whose main industry is Albert Glennon's fish processing plant. No Catholics need apply. The landscape is filled with garbage and "love" is furtive and crude. It's a long way from "Romeo and Juliet" and "West Side Story."
If McNamee's characters are victims of history, some are gifted with intimations of other places. "Like when you look at the sky," Sharon says, "it's the same so it is, doesn't matter where you are in the world." Intimations or no, they are trapped and don't know how to escape, so they turn on each other.
McNamee's craft gleams on every page. He meshes disparate scenes: While a character, Binty, is being killed, the narrator and Sharon are making love. Throughout the narrative there are soft metaphoric shocks: In the fish plant the tissue hats worn by the girls are "the only virtue in the wet and cold civilization of fish." A man's voice is "soft like bad meat." Discarded plastic tampon packages are "like birds paddling out to sea on tiny, pink feet."
As if to ease the prevailing harshness of the tone, the word "silk" is slipped in every few pages: shovels digging earth sound like "torn silk"; a zipper is "the sound of a thousand small mouths chewing, oozing silk"; a stranger's calves "will whisper like silk." And if it isn't silk, it's the word "rustle." In "The Last of Deeds" we listen with the narrator while Sharon urinates "until her bowels halted with a fledgling rustle." (In the second novella, "Love in History," an errant preacher listens to his mother on the commode: "her bowels rustling as if a bird was trapped under her thighs.")
"Love in History" is set in 1944 at an RAF base south of Belfast where the "uniform crotches of USAF pilots were stiff with beauty." Sgt. Gabriel Hooper, navigator, keeps a photograph of Betty Grable on the wall of his room but writes nightly to his wife somewhere in Kansas or Oklahoma. Until he gets his "Dear John," the letters remain unanswered. Hooper's billet mate, Sgt. Hardy, lives in the moment. He plays five-stud poker, smokes cigars, peddles bourbon and cigarettes for sex. Hooper dreams, Hardy deals and that is how they could play out the rest of the war, but for the appearance of a God-crazed preacher from Belfast "born when the unfinished hull of the Titanic climbed above the wall toward a dream of empty yellow life jackets floating among broken packing cases."
The preacher, the Rev. William Morris, rants against the flesh but himself lusts after a local girl, Adelene. No point here in spinning out the rest of the plot except to say there is a triangle of Hooper, Adelene and her friend, Sadie, with the preacher prowling, coveting and eventually destroying.
In Europe the war goes on. Adelene thinks of "an incendiary sky over Dresden, terrible with white pearls of men's flesh." Local women dream of marrying Americans, but to the transient American pilots, they are disposable and forgettable.
McNamee, born long after World War II, turns a powerful camera on a backwater of that war and his characters, American or Irish, are sketched with precise passion. He describes Adelene fixing a stocking "with a single drop of nail varnish that hardened like solder . . . so that the stocking glistened on her legs with beads of nail polish like the toxic jewels of deceit."
Where would a young writer dig up a detail like that?
But that's Eoin McNamee. And if it's a tight tale of the back streets of Northern Ireland or a look behind the front lines of a world war that you're looking for, these two novellas will stay with you forever.