That this is Joseph O’Connor’s masterpiece, I’m fairly certain. I started with his most recent book, The Thrill of it All, which is warm and witty and sad and humane, a fictional rock-n-roll memoir about Irish kids in a northern English town who form a band with Fran Mulvey, a Vietnamese orphan and a misfit in terms of race, gender, and way-of-seeing-the-world. Fran is a memorable character, but the anchor of the book is its narrator Robbie, with his dry-as-bones wit, his humility, and his capacity for love and self-destruction.
The same combination of deep love and destructive behavior is noticeable in a central character of Redemption Falls, James “Con” O’Keefe. He’s many things: an Irish revolutionary in the mode of Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmet (both referenced in the book), a brilliant orator, a Union general in the American civil war, a governor in the northwestern territory–and a dismal failure. He’s charismatic, the kind of man who inspires hero worship, but the secrets in his past seed his life with self-loathing, and sabotage his every endeavor. His wife Lucia-Cruz, a brilliant, dark-skinned, aristocratic Nicaraguan-American poet, has her own magnetism and her own flaws.
The other matched pair in the book is Eliza Duane Mooney, conceived during her mother’s flight from the Irish potato famine in Star of the Sea (O’Connor’s grim prequel to Redemption Falls), and her lost brother, Jeddo Mooney, a child who witnesses and endures the ultimate horrors of war. Eliza’s search for her brother takes her across the country and mingles her fate with those of Con and Lucia.
The plot is intricately woven, and the reader pieces together the story from journals, letters, songs, newspaper articles, posters and other ephemera collected by the narrator, an elderly historian. But the greatest attraction of this book is the language. It is Joycean, and I am not the first to make that observation. Now, you had better not play Joyce’s game unless you are very good at it, and Joseph O’Connor is. “She sklents like a crab through a dustbowl.” “And on she lurches through the foddery air: through dreekings of rain, then hurtful heat, and clouds of fly-filled pollen.” Layered with this musical play of words is a feast of more complex metaphors and conceits:
There are days when the walking takes on the abstractedness of rhythm, when she feels, through the misting of pain and hunger, as though her feet are revolving the planet beneath her, turning it like a prisoner’s on a treadmill. An eerie sensation: she is turning the world.
I’m a sucker for any book with loads of words I don’t know. A few collected from the multilingual ratatouille:
Scalpeen (“a scalpeen shack”): A scalpeen was a hole in the ground used as a habitation, thatched over and walled with whatever stones or wood were available. Scalpeens were used by the poor in Ireland, especially during the potato famine.
Cluricaune (“Bogeymen, cluricaunes, morrigans, will-o-the-wakes”): A cluricaune is similar to a leprechaun, but more surly and always drunk.
Crowjane (“Wolfgirl. Changeling. Crowjane. Swampcat.” “Crowjane Irish bitch”): This name is applied to Eliza Mooney, both as an insult and in affectionate jest by her brother, Jeddo. I was unable to find it in any dictionary, but it seems to mean an uncouth woman, perhaps one destined for a bad fate. The likely source is “Crow Jane,” an old blues song current in Virginia and the Carolinas: “You know, I wanna buy me a pistol/ Wants me forty rounds of ball/ Shoot Crow Jane, just to see her fall.”
Absquatulate (verb: “Skedaddled, absquatulated, vamoosed, cleared out”): This passage defines it well enough. Dictionaries say that it is a humorous North American coinage, formed from “abscond,” “squattle” (depart), and “perambulate.”
Mavourneen (used ironically, as in “my backyard mavourneen”): This word is anglicized from the Irish mo mhuirnín, “my darling.” The song “Kathleen Mavourneen,” penned in 1837, was popular during the US Civil War.
Arpents (“Walking arpents of prairie”): a pre-metric French unit of measurement (length and area), used in the American South. The North American arpent was 180 French feet or about 192 English feet.
From an Irish perspective, the American Civil War was not the simplistic North-South conflict it appears in our high school history books. During that period, Irish people were often the targets of full-blown racism, and they fought their own countrymen on opposite sides of the War. As the former slave Elizabeth Longstreet notes in Redemption Falls,
See, ignorant people don’t got no ken of the world. N***** ain’ no color, it the place you put to stand. I seen slaves white as milk. Masters darker than me. Ever black they call a n*****, not ever n***** black. [Note: the asterisks are mine. The original text uses the N-word.]
Granted, Irish people could hope to conceal their Irishness, while Black people could not conceal their color. Irish people were not enslaved; in many cases, they were the enslavers (ever wonder why the O’Hara plantation in Gone With the Wind was called “Tara”?). But neither were the Irish considered “white” by certain members of the dominant Protestant classes. Con O’Keefe’s relationship with the wealthy and aristocratic black New Yorker, Lucia, is emblematic of the racial complexities of the time.
They could make a movie of this, and they ought to. But I don’t think they ever will, because the narrative doesn’t fit popular conceptions about nineteenth century America. It’s far more chaotic, polyphonic, and colorful than that.