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Review: Fiction

A brilliant return for Dermot Healy Add to ...

The novel Long Time, No See has made me into a huge Dermot Healy fan, but the temptation is to write two reviews for the two books contained here. One book would clock in at about 200 pages and be a work of genius. Number two, the actual article, well over 400 pages, might benefit from a bit of nip and tuck. But the good news is very good. I immediately became excited reading this book, excited to sense the nuance and weird wit and sheer power of his talent.

Roddy Doyle says that Dermot Healy is Ireland’s greatest writer. Not every reader will agree, but Healy is definitely in the pantheon; his prose is impressive.

The novel covers several months in the northwest of Ireland and features an adolescent protagonist with the nickname of Mister Psyche. Here is his family out spying in Sligo town, their idea of fun on a Saturday night. “Da disappeared into the shadows under the clock that always said 9. He was followed by a line of girls in vests to their knees. They looked like parcelled apples. A man came down the archway and had a piss with one hand on his cock and his other hand holding a mobile to his ear. There was a sudden whoosh of crows down from the monastery walls. I began studying the stone work. A young lad in pumps and tweed went by with a pup on a lead and Timmy rose in the back seat and followed him carefully with his eyes.”

Healy’s writing builds in a mysterious way. Expect very little plot, but Healy makes up for this with strange dry humour, affectionate satire, a sense of disconnect, and a sharp eye for minutiae, like the best of Flann O’Brien or Pinter or Kafka.

The expected “Stage Irish” tropes are present: pints and priests and turf fires and granite ruins overlooking a stormy sea, but there are also surfers and Sky TV and Malibu rum and Serbian sailors and Polish construction workers and Daft Punk playing on the pub jukebox.

Healy cut numerous dream sequences from the manuscript (“5 a.m. and the crew of my dreams reluctantly left me”), yet the novel maintains a dreamlike feel as it moves toward winter and death. After a power outage, lights flash on and the characters “leap back into existence.” Young Pysche says, “We had just been a nose or mouth, then suddenly we were in colour, and the whole face was a surprise.”

Some readers may wonder at the novel’s lack of conflict. The adolescent Mister Psyche is haunted by a deadly car crash that killed his friend; he cares for his aging uncles and is smart and nice. His girlfriend Anna jogs a lot and is smart and nice. The hippies on the beach are nice; invite them up and they weed your garden and tidy your house. Two drunken Russian sailors (actually from Serbia) are given a bed on a boat and they turn out to be nice. Even the Protestant landowner is nice; she donates soil to young Mister Psyche’s family garden. The parents are even nicer and everyone picks up hitchhikers (Bono would approve).

I believe in them all, they are utterly convincing, and I feel I’ve spent hours eating greasy chips in their car Saturday night in Sligo, but the lack of overt conflict over so many pages can defuse any sense of tension or drama. Still, giant chunks of the novel are staggeringly good and you will learn more about Sligo and contemporary Irish life than any travel guide or nonfiction could ever convey.

Healy makes fun of the Irish tendency to over use words like “Brilliant! Absolutely!” So I will compromise: Long Time, No See is brilliant. Not absolutely brilliant, but it is brilliant.

Mark Anthony Jarman is the author of Ireland’s Eye, 19 Knives, and My White Planet. He teaches at the University of New Brunswick and recently read in Cork and Sligo.



MEET DERMOT HEALY

A writer’s writer Dermot Healy, the Irish poet, playwright, short-story writer and novelist, is not well known in North America, but Anne Enright, winner of the Man Booker Prize, has said, “Among the Irish, Dermot Healy is the writer’s writer. He is the man.”

Swan song? Long Time, No See, his first novel in 11 years, comes with some controversy: After a lukewarm review in the Irish Times, the reviewer was attacked in print by another Irish writer. Healy has also released a new book of poetry, Fool’s Errand, short-listed for the Irish Times Poetry Prize, along with Seamus Heaney.

Awards Healy has twice won the Hennessy Award (1974 and 1976) and is best known for his novel A Goat’s Song and a celebrated memoir, The Bend For Home. He lives in Ballyconnell, just north of Sligo and not far from Donegal.

Mark Anthony Jarman

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