I’ve wanted to read John McGahern for a long time. Now that I have, I’ll be back for more.
There is a sweet pleasure being a book shop and for a book to almost pull you in, unknownst to yourself. Myself, my wife and kids had wandered into the Secret Book and Record Store http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Secret-Book-and-Record-Store/124706510933587 on Wicklow Street, Dublin, dipping into this, glancing at that, when I stumbled upon the striking cover of The Dark (different to pictured) and it just kinda grabbed me.
Skimming through the first couple of pages I could see it concerned a young boy with a violent dad, similar to what I am trying to write. The prose also struck me, the beautiful descriptions and rhythm to the writing.
The opening chapter, like most of them, is just three short pages in what is a very slim book. Immediately you are thrown into a suffocating world of rage and bleakness. Mahoney, the boy’s dad, we are told is taking his heavy leather strap down from a nail in the kitchen to give his son a hiding in front of his sisters, after first getting him to strip: “The belt twitched against his trousers, an animal’s tail.”
Mahoney is such a brilliant character: a rambling, tormented, broken tyrant in the house who toils in the fields all day. The odd moments of playfulness and possibilities – such as a day fishing – end in ranting and raving at Mahoney junior (we are never given the boy’s name) and his younger sisters. Mahoney jnr and his sisters silently rage against their dad (their mum is dead).
There are difficult scenes of sexual abuse of the boy, first at the hands of his dad and later at the hands of a priest. There are also many scenes of Mahoney jnr masturbating. All this resulted in the book, McGahern’s second, being banned in 1965 by the State censor for obsenity. Not only that but the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin got him sacked from his job as a teacher. And it wasn’t that the Church was roundly criticised in the book. Mahoney junior’s teacher Benedict is shown as a positive, encouraging influence.
The layers of pent-up rage and shame in the growing boy battle against his talents and his dreams. He is bright in school and wants to escape from his dad’s tyranny. The priesthood calls and many of the chapters detail his thoughts on this life versus his constant thoughts of women: “You want to go out into the world? You want girls and women, to touch their dresses, to kiss, to hold soft flesh, to be held in their caressing arms?”
As he grows and studies for his Leaving Cert, the physical violence eases at home, but the constant harping and negativity doesn’t: “Are you soft enough to think the marks can’t be fiddled if you’ve got the pull. You’re very young in the world, you’ll learn a sore thing or two yet…You’ll probably wind up with nothing in the heel of the hunt anyhow. You’ll look a right eejit then, won’t you. And don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
The changing relationship accelerates as Mahoney junior enters manhood and his dad ages and struggles with the endless toil in the fields. There are touching moments of the two of them, such as one after a day’s hard work: “‘There’s nothing the two of us mightn’t do together,’ Mahoney said as they went, blobs of sweat on his forehead, a weariness in the set of the body, the eyes hunted. He was growing old. Hard to imagine this was the same man who’d made the winters a nightmare over the squalid boots, the beatings and the continual complaining.”
I’m no literally critic, but there is something about McGahern’s style of writing that is very satisfying. Maybe it’s like poetry, the flowing accumulation of words and clauses that just works. It has a real rhythm.
I sped through this book, unusual for me. Reading the last chapter between dad and son was very moving and, at the end, my eyes welled up. Enough said.