Sunday, 31 August 2014

The Goats are Singing - Banished Misfortune (4)

The Goats are Singing
Banished Misfortune (4) - Dermot Healy

Further thoughts on Dermot Healy's debut collection of short stories.

Blake's Column
Mr Blake is a "well known" newspaper columnist who is also a dramatist. He has moved into the country with his wife and son but they have since left and he is isolated and somewhat bitter. It is near the place where he was born but he has been living in Dublin for a long time. In many ways he prefigures the narrator of A Goat's Song, who is similarly a rural dramatist separated from his ex-partner and living in isolation.

He also somewhat reminds me of Flann O'Brien in the terms of the tension between his journalism and his creative writing. He is somewhat bitter and self-destructive: "for the moment creation had become abuse against those he considered self-seeking, including trade-union officials, junior and senior, who over the years had given him important information. And knowing, as he wrote these rebukes to people who had trusted him, that he was cutting all ties with security..." Even praise, even praise he received years before is difficult for his to accept: "Like all others of his creed he was superficially hardened towards unhelpful criticism, but especially anxious over praise which he had not earned."

The countryside seems to offer another way but he finds communion with nature difficult to achieve; "when they saw him, the young calves came up the frozen garden and licked the window panes, snorting at him inside. When he bent forward they reared back in fear." Some of the humans seem to rear back also. His ex-wife thinks that he needs to move somewhere else but he doesn't. He persists, writing more and more for himself, producing copy that no-one can print, getting advice from his editor to open a restaurant: "There is money in it," ... "mark my words. Then you can poison them at will." He throws back the sheets. "I can't use these."
Blake puts them back in his briefcase.
"Don't take it personal."
"My cheque?"
"At the desk as usual.""

Although the story is less than fourteen pages long (still one of the longest in the book) it feels longer. It is split into eleven chapters with a mixture of styles and perspectives. It almost feels like notes toward a novel and does, as I mentioned above, seem to hold hints of A Goat's Song within it. It is darkly funny, suggesting that we need to tell each other lies to survive, or at least to varnish over the truth. The bearer of bad news is never welcome.

The Girl in the Muslin Dress
A homeless couple sleep in a doorway and make their way to a squat, stopping briefly for a strange encounter with a retired strongman called Kanka in an old building who's interior walls are painted with "hundreds of rich flowers, long green stalks going this way and that, a crevice of weeds, roses and tulips.."
It is a poetic, wistful story, filled with the memory of the unsaid things that have brought these two characters to the streets.
The narrative voice is the man and it has an edge of the fantastical about it. But as anyone who's been there knows, walking city streets without much food or sleep tends to bring out the fantastical. The story ends up in a room with a key where "back in normality, no dreams come, the future separates us."

A brief, but not slight acknowledgement of the short emigrations of thousands of Irish women every year, exercising a choice in England that is denied by the tension between Ireland's theocratic and republican impulses. It offers another clue as to what makes Healy great. He is electric with empathy, buffeted by the pain of others. As a writer he tries to find essential experiences and is unafraid of tackling controversial issues.
He also has a sense of the currents that pass unsaid between people, the incomplete way in which they try to reach an understanding of each other, and their own lives.
"At long last it came, what had been building up in her all night. From the first anxious strain at her heart muscles, from all the days moving between the cottage and the town, now it would happen. The tears burst out, oh just burst out of her eyes, streamed away from her. They came from her loins and her wrists, happy life giving tears and, God, it took the agony out of the room."

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