Saturday, July 11, 2009

the last book I read

The Leaves On Grey by Desmond Hogan.

Sean McMahon is a young boy growing up in 1940s Dublin. He spends most of his time hanging about with his best friend Liam Kenneally, whom he looks up to because of his exotic and exciting background - his father is the local doctor, and his mother is a Russian émigré who had fled the revolution in 1917 as a child, while most of her family perished. Unable to escape her tragic past, Mrs. Kenneally becomes increasingly eccentric and eventually drowns herself in a river (the Liffey, presumably).

[That's the portentously-titled Book One (of three). This subdivision seems faintly absurd in a book this short (119 pages), but it serves to clearly separate the three distinct periods of time being described, I suppose. I would have thought Chapter One would have done, though.]

We rejoin Sean and Liam as they attend university (still in Dublin) in the early 1950s with a host of others, including elegant blonde Sarah Thompson and her friend Christine Canavan. Inevitably Liam and Sarah form a beautiful couple and Sean is left to hook up slightly half-heartedly with Christine. There's a lot of the usual privileged student activity like going to clubs to listen to jazz, eating buns and general lounging around. Then Sean splits up with Christine, and things take a strange turn as he and Liam and Sarah get involved in an odd ménage à trois, before Liam and Sarah travel to Europe together and separate acrimoniously. Sarah then returns on her own, gets increasingly involved with religious causes and eventually joins an order of nuns. Liam eventually returns, applies for and wins a scholarship to an American university and departs for California.

The story picks up again in the 1970's - Sean is now married with three children, but is troubled by his past, so he arranges to meet up with Liam in Derry, a short while after Bloody Sunday, a meeting which seems unsatisfactory to both parties. Finally, after a brief return to California, Liam abandons his life and joins a monastic order on an island in a lake back in Ireland. Sean visits him there and, seemingly successfully exorcised of the ghosts of his past, returns to his wife and children.

First obvious comment to make is that this is a first cousin to both The Great Gatsby and Le Grand Meaulnes in its depiction of impossibly golden and beautiful but troubled young people having relationships doomed to end in unhappiness, watched all the time by a wistful and slightly envious narrator. This particular book comes with its own layer of Irish religious guilt at any sort of pleasure (especially the sexual kind) attached as well. I suppose there's an obvious debt in the subject matter to James Joyce's A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man as well.

What each of these three books really is, of course, is a thinly-veiled love story between the male narrator and the central male character. In which case it's hard for your view of the book not to be coloured by Hogan's 2008 conviction for the aggravated sexual assault of a 15-year-old boy. Which in turn raises a more general question about art and artists - how separate should we consider them to be? How much should, for instance, the fact that Chuck Berry is a bit of a pervy old goat tarnish the fact of his having pretty much invented rock'n'roll as we know it? Is Nutbush City Limits less of a song because Ike Turner was a wife-beater? Do we disregard Eric Gill's sculpture and typeface design because he was an enthusiastic practitioner of incest, paedophilia and even bestiality? And what about Michael Jackson?

Assuming we don't argue for the burning of Hogan's books then I'd say this is all nicely written, though very slight, since it's little more than a short story. The fact that the concerns of the major characters seem rather parochial and trivial is no doubt partly a consequence of reading the book straight after Blood Meridian, which is no fault of Hogan's, really.

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