Paperback Writers: Unlucky ‘Eileen’
Brian Moore was born in Northern Ireland, immigrated to Canada and spent much of his life living here in California, in Malibu. He wrote scripts, short stories and a string of novels, many of which, like “The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne,” “Black Robe” and “The Statement,” were turned into films. He worked with Alfred Hitchcock on “Torn Curtain,” an experience Moore memorably described as “like washing floors.”
Moore never quite left his Irish behind and was never without his admirers, winning praise from Joan Didion, Graham Greene and Patricia Highsmith, among others. Yet he was, in some ways, a writer’s writer, a bit of a cult figure, revered for a spare style and unassuming plots that nonetheless often hinged around bold, even wild, leaps. By the end of his life he was an almost routine fixture on the Man Booker Prize shortlist but never actually won, being beaten out by books (like A.S. Byatt’s “Possession,” for instance) that outweighed his in pretension, although not necessarily in achievement. Moore died in 1999, at 77, and his work promptly drifted out of print. Now it’s starting to come back.
“The Temptation of Eileen Hughes” (FSG: 224 pp., $15) was first published in 1981, when Moore was at his artistic peak, coming between “The Mangan Inheritance,” in which an American returns to Ireland in search of his roots and his connection to a famous poet maudit, and “Black Robe,” a tale of bloody conflict between Jesuits and native tribes in Canada in the 1600s. “The Temptation of Eileen Hughes” tells the story of a 20-year-old girl (the title character), who’s grown up and still lives in Lismore, a backwater town in Northern Ireland, but is whisked away for a few days by Bernard and Mona McAuley, her employers and seeming benefactors, who take her on holiday to London and a smart hotel. Things go wrong right on Page 1. The hotel has mismanaged the booking, and Eileen finds herself situated in maid’s quarters. There’s no room at the inn, and Moore has us fearing that this young woman will in some way end up being crucified.
Eileen is lonely, shy with boys and lives with her mother. She’s an innocent, but beautiful, as Moore, with typical subtlety, makes the reader aware:
“And now, as she began to walk, she met up with a great mob of people who were coming up the street from what looked like a big railway station, women in headscarves, men in hats carrying rolled umbrellas and briefcases. Englishmen. She looked right at them, wondering if they were different from the men at home, but met familiar male stares, eyes which moved from her legs up to her face, assessing her.”
The McAuleys are rich. Bernard grew up wanting to be a priest but now owns a string of successful businesses; Mona -- intelligent, manipulative, a blond sexpot -- is his trophy wife. They’re not bad people, but careless and selfish, bound to provinces of Northern Ireland by the money they make there, but accustomed to traveling the world, eating in the best restaurants and buying what they like. Bernard thinks he can buy Eileen. He’s obsessed with her, as the reader gathers before she does. Mona is never around, while Bernard squires Eileen to restaurants and a fancy old house, then tells her that he’s secretly bought one rather like this, back in Ireland, with her in mind. Eileen will have her own apartment, he says, while he and Mona will live in the main bit. This outrageous suggestion astounds Eileen and literally makes her vomit.
That’s just the beginning of the story, or the end of the first act anyway. Eileen, stuck in London without money and with Bernard prowling around her while Mona picks up young guys in the hotel lobby, starts standing up for herself. She has strengths, of intellect and moral watchfulness, that she didn’t know about until now. She’s forced to grow up and discover herself.
It’s a coming-of-age story, then, although Eileen is no Jane Austen heroine. She’s tougher than she thinks she is, but unimaginative too. She spurns Bernard, not merely because he’s a creep who’s somehow strayed from the pages of Dostoevski, but because she wants a nice boyfriend who’ll make her feel good, and she’s never heard of Dostoevski anyway. She’s like an older Lolita who just says “no.”
Still, “The Temptation of Eileen Hughes” is about power, and the struggle for freedom that the abuse of power inevitably provokes. The minute, character-driven intensity of its action is placed against a wider historic situation, a conflict to which Moore barely refers while letting us know that it’s looming in the background. Eileen’s mother, Agnes Hughes, back in the small house in Lismore, waits for Eileen’s call and thinks of her. “She’s not lucky, Eileen, she never was lucky. She was born at the wrong time. Ever since she was old enough to go out and play, there’s been no playing in the streets here in Lismore. Nothing but British Army patrols and searches and bombs and shootings and burn-outs.”
Eileen isn’t the only one who’s put upon here -- all the novel’s main characters, and not only her, being Catholics, are an oppressed minority, whatever their economic status, in Ireland’s Protestant-dominated North. In different ways, Bernard and Mona are victims too. Mona is bound to Bernard by her desire for money and security, for stuff, while Bernard, having lost one God, believes he has found something else to worship in Eileen. He really does love her; like an idiot savant, he says: “It’s worship. It’s just wanting to be in your presence, that’s enough, it’s more than enough, it’s everything there is.”
Eileen begins to be rescued from her dilemma (as Moore may have felt that his own life was rescued) by the intervention of America in the shape of a young couple with a baby and the couple’s friend. When they arrive at the hotel, there’s an extended sequence, hovering between farce and tragedy, in which Eileen gets stoned and gives away her virginity to a stranger she’s just met while the obsessed Bernard attempts suicide in another part of the hotel. But Moore isn’t writing “Lucky Jim,” and a final darkness will intervene for one of these characters before the others proceed with their transformed but still stunted lives.
The plot of this novel unfolds elegantly but at breakneck pace, like a thriller dealing in emotion and obsession rather than action. It poses questions as well as answering them, and two of those uncomfortable questions are: Who was the real Jesus here? And why does Jesus seem so shabby?
Moore wrote fiction that is indeed lasting, maybe because it’s tough to put down while still vibrating with a sense of life’s uncertainty and danger. It’s great to check him out again -- and more reissues are on the way.
Rayner is the author, most recently, of “A Bright and Guilty Place.” His Paperback Writers column appears monthly at www.latimes.com/books.