Sunday, 19 October 2014

The Goats are Singing - Sudden Times

The Goats are Singing
Sudden Times - Dermot Healy

"The regrets come with a vengeance. The want of revenge comes with a vengeance."

Sudden Times seems to me to be the most concentrated and controlled of Healy's books. The narrative voice is carefully and shaped and the structure is that of a thriller, with details being drip fed to us to let us know that there will be a revelation by the end. For a long time we are not sure what that revelation will be, and it leaves us feeling unsure as to how to judge the narrator. Is he suffering from grief or guilt? Or both.

The book comprise of a series of very short chapters titled rathered than numbered. Some are no more than a sentence. The titles are sometimes gnomic, often comic and always in dialogue with their respective 'chapters'. Healy's skills as a poet and playwright are in evidence throughout.

Ollie Ewing has returned to Sligo after spending time in London. He seems to have been dislocated by something that happened there, and it haunts him. "I was pinned to the bed by these voices. For hours on end I was interrogated by myself. If you had. If he had not. What if. What if. And nothing was ever resolved. Sometimes the voice was that of a barrister. Sometimes it was the voice of my father. Sometimes it was the voice of someone I didn't know. Whoever they were they were relentless. I was a man listening to complaints and sermons, jibes and asides. This could not go on forever." Hints such as those buried above let us know that he was in court and we also learn that something happened to his friend and his brother.

The book is in Ollie's voice and he spends a lot of time telling us how he appreciates when employers take a chance on him, or when people befriend him, although he has little trust in others. We hear about a relationship that has just ended and it seems his past may have something to do with this: "I put a hand on her shoulder, but she shook it off. Then I knew she knew. I was bad news." We think this may well be the case when presented with lines such as: "She was like one of the Luton ladies I used follow."

However, Ollie is also gentle and sensitive and observant. He seems to find the world threatening. "If you left the fucking window open it turned into a loud-speaker through which a town in turmoil screeched its wares.
Every sound travelled straight up from the streets - drunks, women screaming, church bells, taxis, skinheads. Some frantic demon seemed to grip the folk once darkness fell. At night the whole town bedded down with me. It was a ward of the insane."

We sense that he has been hurt: "after those things happened in London I was not the same. There was no looking back. You have to break out before you can learn the laws of the tribe. And you have to break inside before you can learn your true nature."

Ollie lives in a room in a house with art students and seems to have developed a particular friendship with Liz, to the point where they go to England together for a holiday, although the original plan had been to go somewhere more exotic.

One of the jobs that Ollie holds down is in a pub, working for a couple who are somewhat estranged. "She does not speak to him. He does not speak to her. It's not healthy working for two people that don't speak to each other." Ollie has to act as a sort of go-between, repeating what one has said to the other, even though both are in the same room and can hear every word as clearly as Ollie. He worries that he has given too much away to them, particularly about the difficulties he has been through in his love life. "They tried groping into my past when I first started. I was vulnerable and said things that I should not have." He eats at the bar counter with the husband on the other side and there is a comic sequence where both start to mirror each other. Ollie gets stressed by this, and worries that you can "lose your way among lost souls."

His other job is pushing trolleys and stacking shelves at a local supermarket. The boredom is relieved by an easy friendship among the staff and the humorous anecdotes they share and odd interactions with the public. One story concerns a wonderfully inappropriate comment to his mother by a young child, puncturing the better than you attitude she had to the staff. Another when the (now deceased) Irish d.j. Gerry Ryan makes a brief appearance as a radio conversation brings an end to a conversation between Ollie and a customer:
"Say that word panties again, Gerry, please.
Panties says Gerry and the word shoots across the car park.
Oh Gerry I love how you say that word.
My God says Mrs Brady, and she gave a giant rev.
Say it agin, says the lady.
Panties, repeats Gerry.
Mrs Brady took off."

Indeed there is a little paean to the overheard, perhaps a clue to part of the novelist's working practice: "When the man who went deaf was asked what did he miss most - Music? Talking to someone? Intimacy? - No, he said, what he missed most was overhearing, overhearing on buses, in streets, cafés, All the time I had my hearing I was unconsciously overhearing the din in the background, he said, and that's what I miss most. Confidences between strangers, sentences that don't finish and bring back memories, absurdities, single words, directions, things you could never understand, non sequiturs, whispers, chat, names, the giving of and the words of affection, secrets, abominations, hearsay, suggestions, gossip, the canal water, the traffic, the trees, the hum of the city.
All that, and ducks."

All the time these comic moments co-exist with darker currents, and we get to know more and more. Ollies mother is an English widow, his father living in Coventry. A letter home from him says "Things are not so good here. Its nothing but unemployment and arthritis." The fact that he is in Coventry makes his parent's relationship a sort of distorted reflection of the couple Ollie works for in the pub. Ollie doesn't see his mother too often: "I'm glad to see you, says she. If I don't see you I begin to think you don't exist." It seems that there is a schism between him and his father though, something to do with what happened to his brother.

In the pub in his home village where his mother still lives Ollie talks to a German psychiatrist who has a holiday home nearby. They have known each other for years and guilt is a common matter for discussion between them. Healy's interest in etymology (see A Goat's Song) emerges in a conversation between them.
"Do you know, he asked, the meaning of the word sin?
I have an idea.
You are thinking of religion.
I suppose I am.
I mean the meaning of the word.
Ok, I said, fire ahead.
It means, in most languages, he said, to be. To exist."

As the past comes into focus we begin to hear more about what has happened to Ollie's brother Redmond and best friend Marty. The structure reminds me somewhat of Healy's memoir, The Bend for Home, where extracts from Healy's contemporary diary brings his adolescence alive. In a similar way Ollie's trip to England brings the past into clearer focus and we begin to get far more of the story. Ollie realises that he can't rejoin the main current of his life if he can't somehow integrate what has happened. "It struck me one day I'll have to go through it all again if I'm going to go on living." He is drawn back to the place he and Marty shared in London, a Portakabin on a site where building has stopped. Their life in London could hardly be more contingent.
"The ground is disappearing under my feet. And I get a longing, a sickening nostalgia.
I try to put myself there as I once was.
In the Portakabin waiting on Marty."

Increasingly, it seems that his paranoia may have a real basis in experience, as the people he feels threatened by are named and gradually fleshed out. 'Is Scots Bob out yet? Has he done his time, and if he has, will they come looking?"

He needs to find some way to trust again, some way to reconnect. His father tells him  "Don't end up like me, he said bitterly. People are alright." He wanders London, both in the past and in the present, looking for answers that he can't find. In Sligo he is the same, treating the town like a book that he can read, just as he feels that the bible in the window of religious shop Veritas is addressing him directly. "I stopped to read what new message they had underlined for me in the Bible in Veritas." But he realises that this effort to frame it all with an imported meaning is not real. "The worst thing is I turned sort of religious. That can happen. It can happen the best of us."

**some SPOILERS follow**

Ollie's friend Marty was sucked into in the underworld in London, a world that has taken his life. Having told Ollie that he is fearful of his life, he doesn't return from a journey to Manchester. Ollie, lost, wanders the streets looking for some sign of him. He finally finds him, dead, and the discovery drives Ollie mad with grief, and something beyond grief. "Sometimes I'd get a clear run of sanity and know that what I was going through was not grief but some fucking madness. I kept seeing Marty in the back of the lorry. He was a bright blue corpse with charred clothing sticking to him. One knee drawn up. The skull sideways. The burnt hand splayed."

We are drawn into a world of temporary labour, site security and stolen goods. We meet Silver John and his sidekick Scots Bob.  Ollie is driven to find out the truth about Marty and when he is joined by his younger brother Redmond he too is sucked into this violent underworld.

The search for truth is enacted on the streets of London and then in the courtroom, although the 'truth' found in the courtroom is distorted by the conflicting desires of prosecution and defence to impose their own version.

The book's title comes from Marty's father, who doesn't blame Ollie for what has happened and seems to accept fate: "These are sudden times, he said." Ollie, though, finds it hard to forgive himself.

This is a tense, powerful and moving book, the elements of thriller taut and controlled and the tragic vision of life on the edge resonant and precise. I think these lines of Ollie, as he watches the late night trains, catches the heart of the book: "I used to watch them sometimes, sitting in their lit carriages, looking out at nothing, reading, as they careered through the night. Commuters framed in windows, like sorrowful portraits."

I hope to write a post on Healy's final novel Long Time, No See in the coming week. I have really enjoyed immersing myself in his writing over the past few months, although my reading and writing have been a lot slower than anticipated. I may then post on some of Healy's poetry, although I find it difficult to write about poetry. I haven't got any copies of his plays but if I track some down I may add to this series of posts in the future. My reading has convinced me that Healy is a writer who deserves to be more widely appreciated and I hope I have convinced someone to read at least one of his books.


  1. Some great quotes here, Seamus. Healey's prose feels quite visceral, but the image of Ollie watching people sitting in the carriages (framed in windows like sorrowful portraits) is very poignant. That's quite a balance to pull off.

    1. Yes, he manages to be disturbing, comic and poignant. The mastery of tones and the vivid set pieces make this his most viscerally exciting book. His last book, Long Time, No See is completely different.