Sunday, April 30, 2006

BOOK REVIEW by Gordon Hauptfleisch

Sudden Times by Dermot Healy

Be it ever so humbling: In Dermot Healy's The Bend for Home, a memoir about returning to his home town to care for his ailing mother, the acclaimed Irish novelist, poet, and playwright touched upon the ambivalence that can crop up when being among family again. "I'm home, and yet I'm not home. My home is in their minds, among those nuances, memories, chatter, repetitions, but now I'm at one remove. I've lost responsibility for them."

For Ollie Ewing, the troubled main character in Healy's harrowing, edgy, yet often comic novel Sudden Times, change lies not in kin or kind but in degree, with an irresponsibility and "remove" taken to the nth extent. Upon his return to his Irish homeland after "some experiences" as a skilled carpenter in London, a wound-licking sense of estrangement, erratic behavior and paranoia bedevils Ollie, even after he ends a frustrating period of readjustment by finding a job in a supermarket and lodging in a rundown house with a group of art students. Here, home is where you hang your head, and try to head off the onslaught.

"Every sound traveled," Ollie notes, "straight up from the street - drunks, women screaming, church bells, taxis, skinheads. Some frantic demon seemed to grip the folk once darkness fell. At night the whole town bedded down with me." Amid this "ward of the insane" Ollie wrestles with his inner "complaints and sermons, jibes and asides," finding it hard to talk to anyone with these warring impulses and second guesses, the subsequent laments and the overwhelming guilt that come with them.

The past is haunting him too, of course, but the personality-crises perspective dictates that the whole story, despite the sometimes frantic tone, is revealed disjointedly, haphazardly and gradually — but intriguingly — through impressionistic dribs and drabs, initially pointillistic and seemingly pointless. The bigger picture that emerges after a too-cryptic start, however, becomes increasingly focused, expressive, and disconcerting. When a slowly recovering Ollie finally confronts and explicates the events in England and his murky role as both victim and unwitting instigator, the story of an unbalanced young man becomes one of immigrant working life, racketeering in the construction industry, corrupt bosses, the suspicious disappearance and death of Ollie's best friend — which marks the point when Ollie "began losing the thing that tells me who I am" — and, most devastatingly, the murder of his brother.

For the latter crime, the consequent and climactic court trial involving an implicated but innocent Ollie fuels his sense of shame and incipient insanity, and impels his flight to refuge and reflection. "You have to break out before you learn the laws of the tribe," notes an emotionally battered Ollie. "And you have to break inside before you can learn your true nature."

The kind of haunted introspection and recrimination that is central to Sudden Times, recalls the insight of writer Edna O'Brien in her 1976 history Mother Ireland, in which she states that "a whole entourage of ghosts resides in [the Irish], ghosts with whom the inner rapport is as frequent, as perplexing, as defiant as with any of the living." With this kind of inner conflict surging through the deteriorating mind of a proud "Sligo man" like Ollie, who most mornings wakes up "with a start wondering what had happened. ...Then went to bed the next night wondering what would," the rapport with ghosts becomes more than contentious. Disorientation and full-on paranoia take over, disrupting daily routine and threatening his well-being. "The truth folk are following me about the town," Ollie believes at one point.

More ominously but arguably, he insists that someone has drugged him, and that
another is stalking him and trying to kill him. Protecting himself with just-because-you're-paranoid tactics meant to foil those he's certain are out to get him, Ollie "spotted this buck on the top of a high building with a gun. So I sprinted across the road, shouting and shouting," finally "breaking into a stranger's home to escape."

The frenetic, abrupt and sometimes happenstance nature of events real or imagined bears out the permeating notions in Sudden Times: that, indeed, "most things in life happen...suddenly," and that "you and me are programmed to be random." As Ollie maintains at another moment, "Sometimes you are a beat ahead of the possibilities, things go wrong, and serendipity does not show its face."

Healy conveys this sense of resignation and trepidation with a seesawing, ricocheting style that reflects Ollie's disordered mind. In contrast to Healy's more densely-packed and more traditionally-told novels, Fighting with Shadows and Goat Song, the stark Sudden Times sees time and place leapfrog back and forth, while the narrative — set to erratic, jarring and unexpected rhythms — is scattershot with fragmented flashbacks, hallucinatory sequences and comforting dreams, in which Ollie "walked all point of the compass."

Except for some relatively sustained and straightforward exposition-rich chapters later in the book — much needed as cappers to twice-told telltale signs, foreshadowing and allusions — the raw nerve, immediacy and controlled tension of Sudden Times is complemented with doses of humor and tenderness, plainspoken and poetic, sometimes told in language and wordplay evocative of James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. Thus, a free-flowing stream such as "... we take off over bumps birdlike scatters thunder past the cemetery John Pete lifts his cap and blesses himself with the peak I salute a hare darts across the road Good morning hare," may be followed a few pages later, in another kind of tip of the cap and salute, with an absurd bit of wheel-spinning, grotesquely comic but philosophic dialogue.

But in the end, the wistfulness and whimsicality of Sudden Times, just like the darker themes involving murder and madness, signifies altogether the author's touch. A particularly amusing event, distinctly Healy, takes place upon Ollie's reunion with his once-reproachful father during a trip back to England. In surreal, kaleidoscopic, alcohol-fueled town-painting revelry, Ollie and his dad, accompanied by an amassing group of celebrants, go looking for a particular man, a fiddler, who may not even exist. "It was the sort of thing my father would do," a bemused Ollie declares, "go searching for a man he couldn't find."

More poignant, heartbreaking moments come when a self-aware Ollie struggles to break through the haze of mental illness to "put myself where I once was." At one point, in what should be familiar surroundings, he catches "a glimpse of a vague place I once was daily." But he finds that "the vagueness hurts. It has no name. I try the streets and the smells that lead there, but they taper off. It's funny. I thought it was all stored someplace nice."

At other times, more hopeful ones, Ollie's attempts to reconnect with the people and places in his life, and with his own memories and real emotions, show a glimmer of success. He remembers watching passing trains in the night, wondering about the passengers: "I used to watch them sometimes, sitting in their carriages, looking at nothing, reading, as they careered through the night. Commuters framed in the windows, like sorrowful portraits. ... Longing came over me. I cherish longing."

That's no small feat for Ollie, and for Healy. The effort to overcome crushing guilt, and to recapture a rich life and a true self comprises the hallmark and the main accomplishment of Sudden Times. As Ollie puts it, "the actual event will bring its own shame. But it's when you run it through your brain, again and again, down the years, that it grows enormous. ...The afterlife of sin is more horrendous than the sin itself." The achievement of Healy here is not so much in tracing the sin and its aftermath, as it is in examining the "sinner" with subtlety and humanity.


Because she's with me I can climb the stairs in peace. I wish Lizzie goodnight at her door. I undress according to my system, but get the order wrong as regards the boots after the shirt because the shirt is already off. Anyway according to the system it's best to have the shirt just before the socks. I sit a while on the edge of the bed looking at my feet. I think I hear someone moving.
I dart a look out the window just in case. No one.
I look back at the bed and I'm afraid of that bed. I know that I have a long night's thinking ahead of me. So I put on Queen low and climb beneath the sheets. Then it starts. The Irish are too . . . Irish, don't you agree? Says Scots Bob. You look pale son. Feeling all right? I switch the tape off. Someone passes below on the street. Their conversation reaches my room and in my mind it turns into another conversation altogether. This happens a few times, so that I'm thinking other people's thoughts and making them my own without meaning to till I've gone far beyond the expectations I had when I lay down. Then the talk goes into the interior. The windows of the cleaners steams up. The lorry pulls up and I don't know what I will find in the back.
I don't want to look. I go searching for a sound outside myself


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