Monday, 4 August 2014

The Goats are Singing - Banished Misfortune (1)

The Goats are Singing  -
Banished Misfortune (1) - Dermot Healy

My intention to read all of Dermot Healy's fiction this month and write about it is ambitious considering the current speed of my reading and the rate at which I post. However  I will complete the project, even if I have to stretch the idea of August. You can read my introductory post on this project here, which aims to act as my own reader's memorial to the Irish master who died in June.

I have started with reading Healy's first published book of fiction, the short story collection Banished Misfortune and I am finding it a rewarding if somewhat resistant collection. The stories demand an immersion without, in many cases, a simple revelation of plot or character.

Some stories are like incantations, passages of startling clarity resolving into an impressionist blur of time, place and character. Others are far more straightforward.

The opening story, First Snow of the Year, concerns Jim Philips a postman who retired the day before, a funeral, a death threat, drinking, fighting, voices, broken relationships, hunger strikers, a corpse, cock fighting, the end of sexual desire, the shrug of masculine pride and much more. At times it reminds me of Juan Rulfo's Pedro Paramo. It is uncertain if these voices are from the living or the dead. It is as if the inhabitants of a village graveyard started to tell their stories, somewhat astray in time, drifting across the countryside like patches of fog.

Jim Philips has slept in, hearing "late morning sounds he had not heard in years".
"Light was hammering on the broken shutter.
Shadows darted across the mildewed embroidery of dogs and flowers.
He cleared his womanless bed with a light heart, glad to have outgrown the ache in his smothered loins, outlived his job that he might die in a time of his own making."

The surface of the well is frozen and when he breaks it "from where Jim stood, the earth was on its side, reflected in every piece of ice.." This is like the story, moments snatched, perspectives skewed. Another character, Phildy, is waiting for Jim when he sets out. There are hints that Phildy is not good news, he is surly, a mumbled answer has "a hint of anger was it". They look at a funeral, the funeral of the mother of Owen Beirne, who is mow the partner of Phildy's ex, Helen, the mother of his child. The bucolic aspect of the story is shattered when Phildy, having swung his child round and round says to Helen "If you have a baby by that bastard, I'll come and cut it out of your stomach."

There is savagery in Healy's countryside, a savagery that he presents without gloss or judgement. After the funeral the men retire to a pub where "The light was right for drinking by. Elephants from a circus roared from a nearby town. The radio said: "Walton's, your weekly reminder of the grace and beauties that lie - " I keep being reminded of the expressionist paintings of Jack B Yeats, indeed, the story cuts abruptly from the pub to a scene outside, a scene which could well be a painting:
"Their thoughts faded into the interior.
In a field over from there a circle gambling formed around a penny or a bird, a cock crowed by the wheel of a wagon, the sixth bird lost an eye and a wing was slung into a ditch, and the handler picked blood and feathers out of the mouth of the seventh and breathed life back into him, sucked at his beak and rubbed his chin murmuring along the back of the fighter, while the trainer stood away from the fight, another tossing bag in his hand ready with the oiling tape, the washer and the weights. The men stood with the weight of their feet on their money."

There is a mixture of the general and the particular which sets the story in the geography of myth. There is a reference to a very modern myth, with Jim saying to Phildy "Your(sic) the beast of the mirage, boy" referring to another tale of savagery in the human breast, Lord of the Flies.

But mixed with the violence and despair are tales of resurrection. A tale of an awful blizzard culminates with the dead arising from their graves: "I thought all my beasts were dead, taken from me during the night ... when, Lord save me, out of the drifts by the galvanise shed they came, one by one, struggling up towards me like the newborn..."

Owen Beirne falls off a stolen bicycle and he is assaulted violently by Phildy and two accomplices (or is he?). He is disoriented by the snow: "He stood for a long time trying to get his bearings, but the light was the same everywhere, not the separate light toward which the individual can turn, shining in his own beauty, but dispersed so freely that a great weary record of endless detail began." We are disoriented by his inner perspectives, of Helen, "trussed up in the snow beside the grave", of flying "up to the rafters."

I have read this story a few times now and it resounds more each time. It reminds me of Joyce's The Dead, being concerned with snow and death and jealousy and the impossibility of knowing The Other. It reminds me in parts of The Waste Land, with voices interrupting like choruses, myths rising from mundane detail. It is a story not afraid of comparisons, or failure. If I had only read this story I would be excited about Dermot Healy as a writer. At least I hope I would have given it the attention that has made it exciting for me. A great start to what I trust will be a rewarding month (or more) of immersion in Healy's writing.

I would welcome anyone who would like to participate in any way: by writing posts, reading along and commenting or by making suggestions. Thanks for reading.

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