Saturday, 8 November 2014

The Goat's Are Singing - Long Time, No See

The Goat's Are Singing
Long Time, No See - Dermot Healy

"It's a terror to hear a sound that is not there. Have you ever heard a sound that is not there?"

Long Time, No See, barring an unexpected posthumous work, is Dermot Healy's last published novel. All of his other three novels were set in multiple locations and the characters were often running away from or towards somewhere but here the main characters are all deeply rooted in the small rural enclave of Ballintra on the west coast of Ireland. This time the world comes to the characters, rather than the other way round.

I have seen the novel compared to John McGahern's swan song That They May Face the Rising Sun but it reminded me more strongly of a late work by another Irish writer, Michael Curtin's under appreciated Sing!, which I plan to re-read soon. All three novels insist on the importance of the everyday, which is the true heart of humanism, and a trait they share with Joyce's Ulysses. The vision of life in Long Time, No See is tragicomic, at times seemingly absurd or mundane but lit with an inner fire of compassion and driven by the rhythms and strangeness of the vernaculars of the western seaboard.
"The coal man Mister Awesome suddenly fell and Morgan and Frosty and myself lifted him back up off the floor and into his chair. The card players rose, then seated themselves again, and played on. Mister Awesome woke up and eyed me and said: Hi you Feeney, you think the whole thing is a joke, don't you.
No, I said."

The main character is Philip Feeney, a young man who has just finished school. He is known locally as Mister Psyche, a name which suggests that there is a mythic undertow to this tale. Here is how he describes his life: "This was my day-to-day life since college ended - cutting lawns, and hedges, driving tractors, digging gardens and building walls, and looking after Joejoe and taking in his lobsters from his pots out on the rocks." Joejoe is his granduncle, or possibly his grandfather. He lives on his own in a small cottage where he is regularly visited by The Blackbird, a neighbour of a similar vintage. Their friendship is pickled in enmity, and it centres on the consumption of their favourite tipple, incongruous bottles of Malibu. Procuring Malibu and cigarettes for Joejoe is one of Philip's tasks.

Philip is still dealing with the trauma of losing his friend Mickey Brady in a car accident in which Philip was a passenger. The two friends were inseparable, something we gradually learn through asides and minor incidents. The concern of neighbours is one of the things from which we can infer the closeness of the two boys. It is clear that they are linked together in people's memories.

Time is, of course, noted as the great healer and, as the title suggests, it is a key part of the novel. one of the tasks that Psyche performs is the creation of a garden for his mother, which involves building a dry stone wall. To build the wall, he uses stones from an old ruin, and he feels a kinship with the hands that originally put those stones together.
"I got an awful bad feeling as I pulled the rocks out of the ruin. I had to tell myself over and over that they were going back into another wall. The ruin was supposed to have been a henhouse way back, but it was the strongest-built henhouse I ever came across. There were massive stones in her. I could have been demolishing a small church, and sometimes I thought I was.
A beehive hut it might have been.
A monk's chamber.
I could even feel the sense of balance of the man that built it."
There is also a scene after a storm where an old stone wall is uncovered by the tide and it is clear that Philip has great interest in the past, and feels connected to it. It is a concern he shares with his father, who drives a JCB. He refuses to clear a fairy fort from the land of a farmer."I'll not take a fairy fort down, I said, a place that's been built all that time ago."

His two old neighbours act as a sort of bridge into the past and there is a sense of how times have changed in their lifetimes. When the Blackbird enacts a mime which involves a flock of ghost hens it raises a question:
"Are they fairies, I asked, them hens?
No, they are not indeed, he said, the fairy is gone. He left this part of the world a while back-"
There is a sort of ironic belief in the little people but there is also a belief in the new realities, even if they are seen to diminish the world.
"And I suppose, said Joejoe, without the poteen you couldn't have seen the fairies.
But I saw the buck before I had ever tasted a drop, said the Blackbird. You might say I had it in the nature. Anyway that was then. If you saw one now you'd be put behind bars."
There are moments where it appears that the old myths are knocking on the door for Psyche - "At the edge of the woods a deer stood. I had seen him very few times in my life. At first I took him to be a donkey but he materialised into a deer. He looked at us a long time then turned away as if he had grown tired looking at us humans."
His father uses the JCB to shore up the sea wall, which is, I guess, a nod to Cuchulain fighting the waves, and also to Healy, who did such work himself.

The novel has a rather elaborate McGuffin when Joejoe claims to have been shot at, and shows the bullet-hole in his window. He suspects the General, who he says bears an old grudge, arising out of  woman trouble many decades old.
"Well there you are - he's still gunning for me. Men like that never forget. You'll find one like that on your way through life. You will surely. Yes. They'll haunt you for something you didn't do.
He stared into my eyes.
Can I tell you something for nothing? Do.
He looked out the window gathering himself.
There's a lot of spite on this planet, he said."

It is unclear, however, if the bullet was shot out from inside or in from outside and the quick repair of the broken pane makes it difficult to establish with any clarity. One thing is sure, Joejoe and the Blackbird want to retain their independence and have no intention of leaving their cottages to move in with anyone else or, worse, into some kind of 'home'. Psyche's job, in part, is to help them stay independent, and it is one he appreciates. The novel is very touching on the struggle against illness and old age which the two are involved in. It reminded me strongly of the similarly moving chapters in The Bend for Home where Healy describes the time he spent looking after his ailing mother and her sister.

The novel is full of eccentricity but rather than distance the characters this, for me, seemed like a deep and powerful appreciation of the strangeness of life. Philip and his parents have a weekly ritual where they go into the nearest town on a Saturday evening. His father leaves the other two and wanders around the town, ignoring Philip if he sees him. Philip and his Mother do a little shopping and walking, but spend a lot of time in the car, in the car park, waiting for the father's return, at which point they drive home. Pointless, but also pintless, the scene is rendered strangely touching and allows Healy to sketch the town as night falls.

Philip also has a close friend Anna, who is treated like a member of the family by his parents. They have their own names for each other (Jeremiah/Lala; Doras-Door/Fuinneog-Window) and seem to have a deep mutual understanding and shared history. She tries to draw Philip back in to the social life of their peers but he puts it off, although suggesting that he will be ready someday.

Other characters include some Eastern Europeans, reflecting the changes brought by immigration during the Celtic Tiger years, as against the emigration which usually haunts stories from the western seaboard. These are presented in a positive light, and are welcomed by the pair of old men who may not have travelled outside their own county. "The stranger always teaches you something." There is also a group of hippies, who appear and end up camping in Joejoe's garden.

The novel also includes another trope of the Irish novel, the Great House, and it's mistress, Miss Jilly. Joejoe was familiar with the house from his childhood, and through Philip doing a job (chimney cleaning) for her, they become reacquainted. The Blackbird, who is the chimney cleaning expert, also makes an impression on her. She is lonely and is glad to see them. There is, if anything, a sense of forgiveness inherent in her relationship, a sense that the shared memories are greater than the  divisions.

I feel like I'm not really managing to capture this book. It is full of humour: ("Have you an interior life, he asked. / No, I said."); gently philosophical; and in its own lazy way, mesmerising. It speaks up for the marginal and the easily forgotten. I loved this loose play on Bishop Berkeley's famous question "Inside the woods very quietly the General was secretly sawing a fallen tree." The empty forests of history are inhabited by the forgotten, the marginal, and this book teaches us to listen for the echoes of their falls.

"I often wonder is it possible to see the world through new eyes, he said, but I have my doubts. That's the story. You go on, you do."

Review by Annie Proulx
Review from Irish Independent

I hope to write a post or two about some of Dermot Healy's poetry over the next few weeks, although writing about poetry always makes me uncomfortable for some reason. The poetry I've read fits seamlessly into the body of work that the novels and short stories make up, with recognisable incidents and metaphors crossing the borders between poetry and prose.  I may even come back to this novel and try to do it greater justice. Although I may leave that until I reread it, which will be a while.


  1. I love your final line: "The empty forests of history are inhabited by the forgotten, the marginal, and this book teaches us to listen for the echoes of their falls." That's beautiful.