Wednesday, 10 September 2014

The Goats Are Singing - Banished Misfortune (5)

The Goats Are Singing 
Banished Misfortune (5) - Dermot Healy

I've been stumbling slowly through the works of Dermot Healy for the past month, my reading somewhat ahead of my writing, but not too far.

I have been getting very tired, something which may be somewhat down to increasing myopia, which has led me to finally start wearing the glasses which made so little difference when I got them a couple of years back.

Here are some thoughts on the final five stories in Banish Misfortune.

This is another story set on the streets of London. Kelly is the shortened form of Kowaleski, an older Pole who befriends the narrator Darcy when they both sit outside the back of the same restaurant drinking the beer left in the end of the bottles that are thrown out . They both share their position as immigrants and their catholic background. Darcy is torn between the city he lives in and the village and countryside of his childhood

Darcy and his partner Diane and their child live in a space, presumably a squat that "had been like a discarded planet when they moved in but now she was gaining confidence, they had cleared a bathroom, broke into a drawing-room." Diane does more when Darcy is not around, something which happens a lot.

Him and Kelly live a hand to mouth life, with the hand usually holding a bottle, as the flotsam and jetsam of history: "They moved about the city throughout the following months, picking up a day's work washing or serving in cafés on the Serpentine or hotels in Knightsbridge, sometimes arguing, sometimes drinking in silence. When Franco died they read the Spanish poets, when the rain came they sat up in a bandstand in St James's Park conducting an imaginary choir, they buttressed the ends of sidewalks with a gang from Mayo, served food at a wedding in Brixton, and by the end of the winter Angola had risen, Rhodesia was beginning to tremble and Solzhenitsyn had visited England, complete with the laurels of Western policy. The worker's marches had begun earnestly in England and Russia had again taken its historical place as the threat in Europe, and looking back a hundred years to slums and hunger, the historian will see how the slums have moved to the Third World out of harms way, how hunger and recrimination increaseth. And at the mention of Stalin Kelly would break out into his own language with a merciless tirade. And Northern Ireland people died under the same circumstances."

History and identity pulse through their conversations and there is a tension between reality and the inexpressible. There is a sense of the ineffable nature of the world and its interaction with the individual. Damage is inevitable.

Four paragraphs and a final sentence make up the whole of this very short story. All four paragraphs start with the phrase "This man and this woman..." Are they the same couple or different couples? There are still elements of an exercise about this story. It doesn't quite satisfy me, being, as in the first paragraph, like a sky in which the clouds are constantly being smudged and disappearing.

Night after night our young narrator stands outside a house, counting in his head and waiting for the girl he loves to emerge.

He also drives his uncle from pub to pub, where he picks up drinking companions and women. The uncle can't drive himself as "the cursed guards are becoming a menace."

At work, he struggles with the tiredness after his nights waiting for his love to come to him. We are not too sure if this is all a fantasy in his mind or not.

The elision of the gap between thought and experience is a constant in Healy's early work, the links are lost in the 'shadows' that give the title to his first novel Fighting With Shadows. Experience is always subjective and the reader must be prepared to immerse themselves in the subjective without necessarily having a clear objective viewpoint from which to judge the action of a particular story.

The Tenant
The Tenant is a story which is as particular as many of the other stories are rich in ambiguity. A man arrives in a small town and heads to the nearest hotel. When left alone in his room "he took a wad of notes from his inside pocket and counted them with the skill of a cardplayer, his thumb reaching for a watered sponge that wasn't there.
He did not count them again."
Healy plays with genre here, teasing the reader with the idea that this may be a caper tale, only to fix the stranger as a bank cashier rather than some desperado.

He had been taken to his room by the porter, Johnson, who has returned from England. "Everyone believed that Johnson had a fortune put away but whatever the truth of that rumour, it was conceded that he had few ambitions left." Johnson behaves towards Mr Franklin (for that is our cashiers name) with a sort of conspiratorial intimacy, getting him, unrequested, a hot water bottle to counter the cold in his room.

The story reminds me somewhat of Dubliners. The town seems to be defined by a sense of rot. dark green and brown give an autumnal feel to the story. When Franklin looks out from his hotel room he sees little to excite him: "He looked out the window at the small miserable town, the fighting jackdaws on the sagging slates with their burden of moss, the flat roof above Woolworth's with pools of water on its dark-green felt." We hear that his predecessor left in disgrace, and this adds to an almost psychotic obsession with propriety.

Mr Franklin seems to be a man of great probity, a man that love banking and the clean orderly nature of figures. Upstairs in the bank with the manager they look over early paperwork from the bank, including the first cheque drawn. These are treated with the reverence normally reserved for religious objects. "He admired with a nod of his thin skull the faded handwriting, each small figure sketched with the reverence given to millions, and the symbols for sterling like musical notations giving what came after the appearance of poetry, and above all the name of the parent bank, their present employer who might any day merge with the enemy, drawn with hieroglyphic intensity, and then each side, the brown scales of justice."

He is also progressive, or as progressive as the bank wishes him to be. He treats the poorer customer with respect. Previously, we are told the bankers would call these people into their rooms for meetings which would end in refusals. They "had power over the people because they knew their secrets, and the sinners would emerge from these meetings, rebuffed and withdrawn."

The bank is embracing the modern world, in however lukewarm a fashion, and driven by PR: "the new public image also meant the increased employment of women and the big question was, would they wear their own clothes or a uniform? It was hard to believe that money would now be channelled through non-masculine hands. And after the women, to the utter bewilderment of the older clerks, would come the computers.
And after that would follow all the chaos of the common world."

After some time living in the hotel, Mr Franklin is invited by Mr Johnson to come and live at his house instead. It will be cheaper and the food, he assures him, will be just as good. After considering the offer, and checking out the house, Mr Franklin accepts and at first, seems to have made a good decision. He is warmer, more comfortable and develops a good relationship with the eldest son.

He remains a man of probity, however close the observation: "The cashier's evenings were spent either reading or working. There was plenty of time for frivolity in the years ahead..." However, his very propriety starts to irk Mrs Johnson and she misses her privacy, feeling unable to speak her mind around Mr Franklin.

The tensions escalate, and the finale, although quiet, is powerful. The impossibility of speaking freely and openly in the world he inhabits means that Mr Franklin lives in fear of any disturbance to his narrow, careful place in the world.

This story resonates for me with The Curse, and it's sense of how large a ripple a small stone can appear to make in a still pond.

Banished Misfortune
The final story gives its name to the collection. It's name is derived from the old Irish jig Banish Misfortune and music beats at the heart of the story. The weather becomes a symphony: "Soft Chinese music of the rain on glass and leaves, lightly touched cymbals, ducks crashing onto the waters, the primitive crane stretching her awkward wings in a lone high flight, the land below so cold and misty it looked as if a healing frost had settled."

It has at it's heart the question of identity, the detritus that defines us, drifting and undefined though it may be. The style reminds me of Muriel Spark at her most oblique (The Hothouse by the East River), puzzling yet fascinating. Music is at the heart of McFarland identity, the house having been built by his father as a place where music would be played, and the children picking out tunes on a piano.

The McFarland family travels from their home in Fermanagh to Galway, where the father will play his fiddle and meet old friends. When they arrive in Galway it is in chaos after a storm: "The scene was obscenely familiar to the family from the north who felt for a moment slightly superior in their ability to deal with chaos, death, laughter at death."

Like Johnathan Adams and his family in A Goat's Song, the South is a relief after the tension in Northern Ireland, a fact acknowledged by Judy, his wife, although she doubts that it will be very effective:  "it was a necessary outing for them all although she was uncertain that any of them might feel release, know the difference in such a small time for they had burrowed down so deep in anxiety that happiness was nearly hysterical."

McFarland (we don't learn his first name) carries "his copy of Scott's final trip up the frozen pole, a book he had read many many times and still felt the same harsh ecstasy the explorers must have experienced when, worn to the bone of humanity, they discovered that the Norwegians had been there before them." The north, one feels, is cold. However their journey is south, away from the cold clarity of the Fermanagh countryside, itself somewhat of an escape from Belfast, to Galway - which Judy (McFarland's wife) "had never accepted as a city, it was more like a big drifting market town."

The story ends in the past, at the time that Saul McFarland, father of the central character, was building the house where his son now lives, with the help of some gypsies. It ends with an image of the gypsies horse being "loath to leave the fine grass" when the house is built and the work finished. Is this loyalty to place, the loyalty that can lead to so many deaths?

I'll leave you with Richard Thomson playing a different version of Banish Misfortune. In these stories Healy has always sought different angles from which to approach the world. Sometimes abstract, sometimes concrete, the stories all hammer at the idea of identity and loyalty, family and place. It is a rich book and there are many foreshadowings of the riches to come in Healy's novels. I will start posting on those novels soon, starting, as Healy did, with Fighting With Shadows.


1 comment:

  1. Just dropping by to say I've been following your Dermot Healy posts with interest. I haven't read anything but Healy, but I'm interested in the theme of identity you mention in connection with many of the stories in this collection. I like the sound of the ambiguity, too. There must be quite an art (or skill) to writing a really good short story - to know when to stop and leave enough room for the reader's imagination to play a part. It sounds as if Healy managed this very effectively.