A series of guest reviews on inspiring work, old and new.
Dalkey Archive Press has republished Dermot Healy’s first novel, Fighting with Shadows, and issued his Collected Short Stories. These books provide an insight into the most extraordinary Irish literary consciousness of the last 50 years.
The majority of the stories were written between 1975 and 1999. In the early stories Healy absorbs and discards styles and influences with bewildering speed, working towards the language which would be a fit with his unique perception. The book is partially framed by two versions of ‘First Snow of the Year’, in which a retired postman is tracked into a landscape of desire and loss in the shadow of the death of hunger striker Frank Stagg. The early version is naturalistic, conventional in style. The rewritten story, with the writer having grasped his method, is shimmering, otherworldly.
From his 1982 collection, Banished Misfortune and Other Stories, ‘Betrayal’ leads you to another constant – Healy’s psychological acuity, the sheer raw insight. Men and women stand bare and revealed before the world. The sex is often harrowing. Sometimes the flesh is worshipped. Sometimes it is stripped from the bone. Tenderness is not excluded, but it must be earned and the cost is high.
London settings alter the tone. ‘Girl in a Muslin Dress’ feels as though that cold city’s patina of lovelessness resisted the writer’s sensibility, his characters seeming to wound themselves against it. The deep centre of the book is ‘Banished Misfortune’. A northern family on holiday in Galway are adrift, ghosts in their own land as, unknown to them, their house in Fermanagh is burned to the ground. It is one of the great short stories.
Healy is often compared to the Latin American magic realists and the comparison is correct up to a point. His frontier bestiary of eels and hawks, cormorants and foxes is as exotic as a Frida Kahlo background, but there was always an element of story-weaving about the magic realists, of a fable being related. They told you about a strange world whereas Healy takes you right into that world. Their view is always partly that of the the interloper, the traveller in strange lands whereas Healy’s is the native eye, hedged about with visions, shape-shifting, old tellings. The wood kern watching you from the trees.
The elemental feel for terrain anchors spirituality in ‘The Island and the Calves’. The Song of Songs pulses through the story, the agonies of Easter underpin it. Healy is always alert to the spiritual, that which is ecstasy and that which is torment. Suffering was native to Healy as was elevation.
The longest story in the book is ‘Before the Off’, where characters pass through a pub on the morning of a race meeting. Travellers, lounge bar hangers-on, well-got racehorse owners. It is in the style of his last novel, Long Time, No See. The writing is spare, speech-driven. The dialogue an orchestra of the withheld. Such was his ear for the spoken word that he could take it anywhere he wanted, load it with meaning without ever losing the ring of true speech.
Healy’s first novel, Fighting with Shadows, turns around the Allen family in the fictional village of Fanacross on the Fermanagh border. It opens with the greeting, “Anything strange?” The answer is that it is all strange, the world mutable, not to be depended upon but strewn with marvels. The air is thick with the dark matter of the Troubles. A later Healy poem talked about waking to see a cat standing in the bedroom door, a form of death come calling, elegant and incurious. Here, death is arbitrary, fast moving.
We enter the novel through Frank and Helen Allen. Their relationship a carnal winnowing, as it often is in Healy. Sex carrying the psychic weight of the marriage. There’s an anguish in it, “their love-making like a quick dash down a deserted street. Unsatisfied ghosts were at the window.”
Gordon Burn said that good art sucks in the psyche of its time and the time of Fighting with Shadows is the Troubles. People are shocked by themselves, are malevolent and unknowing at the same time. The novel was criticised on publication for not foregrounding the agonies of those years but Healy was a teller of the unseen and the universal and those criticisms now seem banal and shrill. Other worlds are encompassed at any rate.
Frank and Helen’s son Joseph moves to the Cove Hotel in an imagined Cavan town. It’s the hallucinatory swirl that the midlands does, the lakeland panache, the allure of the straight road in a Mk II Ford Escort after midnight, boot to the board, Dearg Doom on the stereo. The world of proto-rock bands, Mandrax tabs, bacon factories, country music. It is also the world of the blind man who measured the passerby’s steps until he knew that the rent collector was approaching then beat his brains in with a flag pole. “He killed him so that he might never hear his like passing through his eternal night again.”
Drawn to borders
Healy was always drawn to borders – between the seen world and the unseen, the trackless frontier between men and women and always that between life and death. The novel circles back on itself. There are shifts in time and in points of view. There’s an argument for taking the whole book as a poem, for it demands the same attention and resolve that a poem does and rewards in equal measure. Neither the novel or the stories depend on plot. They are driven by the majestic impulse of Healy’s prose. There is always the possibility that words will break the structure of the sentence and become incantation.
What lies before you in these books is both a gift to see the world with a clarity not often granted, and the immense will and virtuosity to render that vision as art. It is difficult to condense the experience of reading Healy. We will never hear his like passing through our night again.
Last word to his friend and countryman Patrick McCabe, who wrote of Healy’s ability to be visionary yet wholly of the earth: the world’s stained glass glittering in the eye of a dog.
Eoin McNamee is the author of The Blue Trilogy and Resurrection Man. He has also written a trilogy of books for children; The Navigator, City of Time and The Frost Child.