In launching this blog I thought I might start by writing about one of the of the best books I have had the pleasure of reading in the last year or so. Perhaps I warmed to, Long Time No See, because the cadence of its dialogue reminded me so much of the lilt and music of the brogue spoken along the Cape Shore of my own island home of Newfoundland where the Irish settled in droves in the mid-nineteenth eighties. Also, this book is about life in a small village such as you find around here: Placentia or Twillingate, where there is a main road with a dozen or so shops and a cottage hospital, a school and a church and somewhere tucked away there is the ubiquitous well-worn pub (we would call it a beer parlour) where the locals, wander in looking for a yarn as much as they might for a glass of beer. This village of Ballintra that Dermot Healey has created as the backdrop to his story is a universe in miniature where all the stories of Irish mythology and the plays of the ancient Greeks and the works of Shakespeare and the films of Ingmar Bergman or Woody Allen could very well be dramatized on the scale of that tiny stage.
The story is narrated by a young man, Phillip Feeney and takes place the summer after he has written his final exams before university. He is on the brink of his future but hesitates there on the edge held back from enjoying the pleasures and promises of his youth by a tragedy that occurred in that final year at school when one of his friends was killed in a car accident. He is saddened by survivor’s guilt but quietly convalesces while working at odd jobs and looking out for his elderly great-uncle, Joejoe whom he calls Grandda. Joejoe lives in a draughty cottage by the ocean with his dog and his memories. He calls Phillip, Mr. Psyche for a reason never completely explained but I suspect it is because Phillip is a particularly sensitive, perceptive fellow. This is in complete contrast to Phillip’s father who is awkward in his affections; a bit of a bull in a china ware shop. Joejoe has a best friend, Tom, nicknamed the Blackbird because as a young man he was strikingly handsome with raven coloured hair. He is an octogenarian and a bachelor like Joejoe and together they share a taste for Malibu rum and a bit of gossip. Then there is an arch nemesis and rival called The General who may have stolen Joejoe’s fiancé sixty or so years ago… or did he? It is a one of many little mysteries in this book. The other thing that remains vague is what is going on in Joejoe’s head. In the fourth chapter a shot is fired through one of Joejoe’s windows. He is convinced it was the General’s doing, Phillip’s father thinks it was the Blackbird and Phillip is not so sure but that Joejoe may himself have fired the shot accidentally and then forgot all about it.
So we do have a quickening of the action in chapter four but the plot is not so much the thing although it is dotted with secrets half revealed and puzzles solved; such as how to feed an angry dog trapped inside a locked and bolted house. Would you like to know the solution? …post his food through the letter box. Beyond the narrative the reader’s attention is captivated by the circle of characters that come and go making entrances and exits as if this were a play of many short scenes. There is Phillip’s girlfriend who is kind hearted and always jogging, running like someone treading water, marking time and waiting to get beyond the summer break. Then there is Phillip’s bombastic but caring father who is a labourer and likes to play with heavy equipment (harmlessly) in his spare time and Phillip’s mother who, as a nurse, is closest to the base line of the human condition: birth, life, death but who enjoys a glass of Sauvignon blanc on her day off. There is Miss Jilly of the disappearing gentry who keeps her husband’s ashes in an urn next to her armchair and an assortment of foreign workers from Poland or Lithuania or Latvia and landlocked sailors and a mysterious foreign diplomat and from out of nowhere a group of latter-day hippies who make it their mission to be neighbourly and helpful.
I’ve just read over what I’ve written so far and find I have not explained why this is such a readable book. I think if I analyse it carefully the strength of this book resides in the masterful way the author constructs dialogue. This is the power and the engine of the novel. These are not dialogues encumbered by quotation marks and the monotony of always noting he said this and she said that. Instead dialogue is in free form and flows as if the characters are engaging in a dance: a waltzing of words. I heard an interview with Dermot Healey either on radio or a podcast when he was introduced as a novelist, poet and playwright. Is this the secret then? Have we here a play disguised as a novel?
There is also the landscape of Ireland: the twisty country roads, the green meadows, the bogs and woods where people drive around in their Fiats and might occasionally and optimistically have to tow a Mercedes-Benz. This is the Ireland of mobile phones and computers and the tamed Celtic Tiger existing side by side with the very ancient Ireland where a raging storm might churn the sands of the shore and reveal in its wake an ancient sea wall built by medieval monks or where the last of the of the Irish fairies can sit in your pocket or the palm of your hand. Here I must stop. I’ll not say anymore as it would not be fair to the story were I to give too much away.