Despite the Irish boom of the 1990s (with the country becoming the Celtic Tiger), a subsequent bust caused by a property bubble, and a decent recovery compared to some places, the culture has a long history of struggle, which seems to still make its way into fiction. There's a lyrical presence in the stories, sort of poetic, sort of dramatic, that make for compelling reading. It's so different from the edgy noir that seems to be a popular export of Scotland. Yes, I know that the Irish can write noir and the Scottish folks are probably writing lyrical novels of family secrets, but without this stereotyping, I wouldn't have much of a blog post.
I first learned about Patrick O'Keeffe when he won The Story Prize for The Hill Road, back in 2005. Here's what the Story Prize folks wrote about that book. "The rural Irish village of Kilroan is the setting for four long stories ranging in time from World War I to the 1980s. Kilroan's main industry is dairy farming and the primary diversions are alcohol and talk. For most, it's a difficult life, full of backbreaking work and thwarted dreams. But hidden passions lurk beneath the surface, occasionally igniting in sudden, unexpected violence--acts that are covered up and over the years become guilty secrets for some and mysteries to most. With its attention to detail and its lyrical eloquence, this debut collection invites comparison to the work of Alice Munro and William Trevor."
His new novel, The Visitors, is about an Irish-American man, James Dwyer, who is teaching in Ann Arbor. Ah, but how he got to this place is the story, and for that, he has to go back to rural County Limerick, where his parents farmed the land, down the road from another family, the Lyons (editor's note: who might have been farmers if the land hadn't instead passed to the brother). As the story progresses, we discover his path, through bartending in Dublin, painting houses outside Boston, and working at a bakery in Michigan. But James, or Young Jimmy, as one of the characters calls him, has a past that's inextricably linked back to Ireland and the Lyons family. He's also known as Jim and that's what I'm going to call him for now, as it's the shortest of the variations and easy to make possessive.
It starts when a stranger appears at his door, perhaps the first of his visitors. This man, Walter, reports to James that there's a woman lying on the street. He later reveals (and I'm going to try to avoid reporting on all the revelations and twists, but it's going to be hard) that he's not actually there by accident; he's got a message from Kevin Lyons, who really wants to see him. Kevin now lives in the Hudson Valley of New York and he'll pay to get Jim there.
What the heck is going on? Jim and Kevin were not particularly close, with Kevin if anything, more of the bully to Jim the victim. James is aware of a particularly bad relationship Kevin had with Jim's sister Tess, but to Jim's knowledge, Kevin is completely unaware that Jim once had a relationship in Dublin with Kevin's sister Una.
So what is this about? Could it be true that Kevin has told his daughter that Jim and Kevin were once good friends? Or does Kevin have something that he wants Jim to see, and if so, why?
The story weaves its way through Jim's present and past, with Jim and Kevin's families creating a tangled web of secrets and betrayals, love and abuse, touching moments and terrible violence. Here's where it's hard to say more without revealing too much, but I'm going to do you a favor. It's so out of vogue for anyone to do a cast of characters on any novel without War and Peace ambitions (500+ pages, 50+ characters), but for this novel, I really think that laying out the family tree would not be a bad thing. The thing to really note here is that both Jim's aunts and sisters are named Hannah and Tess. Gosh, I hope I got that right.
Jim is a man who has the weight of his generations in his story, and it's possibly only through emigration that he and his siblings can live a relatively normal existence. Sometimes Dublin is enough, but others head to London, and even Australia, where his brother probably creates the most banal of the sibling's lives. That said, some are not able to leave their burdens behind, and their troubles follow them to their new homes. And lest you think only the Irish have stories, just about everyone Jim meets has a story to tell, and these are both asides and essential to the overarching theme of how the generations of stories about our families weigh on the generations that come afterwards.
O'Keeffe's dark, funny, romantic, heartbreaking writing is at pace with the wonderful reviews of The Hill Road, and I thought that the Story Prize praise could have been equally applied to The Visitors. It's by no means a traditionally structured novel, and while I would not consider the new work connected stories by any means, there are short story elements embedded in the writing: chapters written in second person, others in almost complete dialogue like a stage play, and one long journal written in a sort of dialect with less punctuation than your left brain might feel comfortable with. Don't bleep over this; some of the most important revelations of the book are in those pages.
Don't just take it from me. Here's more advance praise for The Visitors. “How well Patrick O'Keeffe knows the difficulties of leaving the past behind. I am full of admiration for his long view of history and family and the way he gradually reveals both in this wonderfully intelligent novel. The Visitors is a work of many pleasures.”—Margot Livesey
“In Patrick O'Keeffe's The Visitors, the past is constantly catching up to, and overtaking, the present, and the result is haunted and beautiful book that culminates in violence that's both inevitable and surprising. A wonderful first novel.”—Charles Baxter
“The tangle of family life—the perils of escape, the perils of staying—is written into a novel of rare emotional authenticity. Ireland and America keep offering eye-opening surprises here, as The Visitors--unsentimental, unflinching, poignant in the most convincing way--shows how home and the past keep changing their meanings.”—Joan Silber
Viking's parent company, the Penguin division of Penguin Random House, does a soft Thursday, hard Tuesday laydown, allowing them to have unofficial pub date St. Patrick's Day. That gives you some time to read O'Keeffe's novel before he comes to Boswell for a conversation with UWM's Valerie Laken on Friday, April 11, 7 pm. It should be a wonderful time, and if I'm not mistaken, Mr. O'Keeffe should have some good stories.
Oh, and since we have no events today and we highlighted Joanne Fluke last week, our event calendar will appear as Tuesday's blog post and our new and noteworthy post will be bumped to Wednesday. This is what happens when you have a good holiday tie-in.