Friday, September 16, 2016



Thomas McGonigle, St. Patrick’s Day: Another Day in Dublin (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press
Thomas McGonigle has published three novels. The first is called The Corpse Dream of N. Petkov ((1987), a treatment of the last moments of the leader of Bulgaria’s Agrarian Party, executed by hanging in 1947.  The second is Going to Patchogue (1992), the story of a day trip there and back to the town on what the natives call Longh Island where the author grew up (he was born in Brooklyn in 1944). Now, more than forty years in the making – ‘Dublin-Sofia-New York 1972-2015’ -- comes St. Patrick’s Day: Another Day in Dublin – St Patrick’s Day 1972, that is, when the narrator, one ‘Tom McGonigle’, returns to the city where he was once a student at UCD, although the action, if that’s the name for it, is not confined to Dublin or to the year in question, but wanders hither and yon through time and space. Headlines referring to later events, such as the hunger strikes, and an evening out with, among others, a poet by the name of Nuala and a man called Jonathan who writes history about Belfast and Ulster, earn their unpredictable though unexceptional keep as readily as do recollections of Patrick Kavanagh and lectures by ‘Denis’ at a certain university. Spatially, while the eponymous day essentially consists of a via dolorosa taking in Grogan’s, Neary’s, McDaid’s, the Russell Hotel (where Tom is staying) and ending up in a bacchanal in Poolbeg Street, there are also side-trips to Paris, Sophia, Copenhagen, Flensburg, and other international locations, not forgetting Patchogue -- a name whose resemblance to the title of a book by, say, An t-Athair Peadar is just about the only literary connection that’s beyond this novel’s range, both in terms of names dropped and (mainly modernist) techniques adapted.  
                  But then Tom isn’t much of a one for the Irish – for the Irish in any form, animal, human or mineral (though few minerals are in evidence on the day in question). Or rather, it’s more accurate to say that he is and he isn’t. He acknowledges attachment – by blood and also by virtue of emotional and sentimental ties – but he also maintains detachment. He knows everyone, without seeming particularly close to anyone. He’s a displaced Yank, a deracinated Paddy. These and many other contrasts (not conflicts, interestingly) equip the narrator with his presence and his uneven though ineluctable momentum, and generate an extensive series of registers which constantly give way to each other, phasing in and out with no discernible pattern, with nothing, really, but their own unavoidable multiplicity. From such layering what might be described as a collage-like portrait of the protagonist emerges, as the book’s cover suggests by featuring a piece entitled ‘Pub Crawl Down Memory Lane’ by New York-based, Belfast-born artist David Sandlin. Tom is in mourning, that essentially modernist condition. He’s also a boozer, a jilted lover, an ugly American -- at least in the eyes of many of his fellow-imbibers, allegedly -- a traveller, a loner, a writer, a litterateur, and an emigrant traversing not the briny the ocean but that of his consciousness of loss. The collage view of St. Patrick’s Day, an assemblage of scraps, bits of material that have outlived their use but which are still knocking around, is also reinforced by the use of different type-faces. These, too, signal different registers, but they also suggest the distracted, or distractable nature of the apprehending subject, and depict the mind as a sphere through which anything might pass at any given moment. There is, then, an inveterate restlessness, or a kind of passive-aggressive attitude to direction and purpose, to the novel, so that the narrative’s stream of consciousness technique, to which restlessness is endemic, spills over into all aspects of the book, aesthetic, psychological, social, and whatever you’re having yourself.  
                  This is all fine and large in its way, no doubt, and it’s interesting to find in this age of literary reaction for find a work still committed to the indivisibility of matter and manner. One result of this commitment is that St. Patrick’s Day flaunts much of what might be expected of it. This is not to say that the story (for want of a better term) is completely random and arbitrary. Tom’s visit to Dublin, and his ability to afford it, is one outcome of the sudden and undignified death of his Donegal-born father in an upstate New York carpark. Thoughts of his father’s working life as an executive tacitly question the worth of such a career, which in the end turns out to be no more solid than the drink that lubricates the moment’s passing and then itself is passed. The mourning note is accentuated by attempts to undercut it, such as the fingering of the grimy banknotes that sustain the many rounds stood in the course of the day. The Yank has cash, but it’s a poor thing, all in all – the novel ends on an absurdist financial (and textual) note, reproducing a cheque for half a million pounds signed by Derek Mahon. Time’s uneven current and its inscrutable value is more to the point that the supposedly invariant reliability of currency. The rounds of drinks, and the rounds of the various pubs, are only the most obvious instances of a more general notion of circulation deriving from recollections of travel and, indeed, from recollections of all sorts. An interplay of repetition and difference underlies this shifting around, as ‘another day in Dublin’ suggests, in addition that subtitle’s paying a downbeat homage to, as well as establishing a distance  from, the book of June 16, 1904. This same sense also resides in Tom’s active dating life as a UCD undergraduate, which features a beauty from Réunion as well as various Europeans, and above all Barbara, a local, the moment of parting from whom, casual and unnecessary as it seems, continues to haunt him (haunting being a form of returning, which is a fundamental component of circulation). But special moments with Barbara coexist with a nostalgie de la boue for other people and places from earlier days – African students, dodgy lodgings, coffee at the New Amsterdam in South Anne Street or the Copenhagen, Rathmines Road.
                  In view of its mentioning so many well-known writers of the day, not all favourably by any means – and no doubt readers familiar with the scene back then will recognise many of the other personages – it might be thought that St. Patrick’s Day is a roman à clef . But there’s no clef, because there’s no one thing to be unlocked. True to the self-revealing character of stream-of-consciousness, what you see is what you get with Tom. And other characters, whatever their status, are just as much mixed bags and passers-by as he is. No particular distinction or merit inheres in being a local, a native, a national. On the contrary, although they may be at home in a certain geographical sense, the great majority of the characters seem displaced, for whom the pub is a wayside chapel, a time-out from the difficulties, domestic and otherwise, of so many other nameless days. Tom has found no basis for believing that being Irish is in any way a privilege. If it is, surely St. Patrick’s Day is when what such a privilege take persuasive form, one combining public affirmation with personal conviction. What we have instead is the pub and its personalities, or alternatively bands and cheerleaders from Tom’s native country. Such polarities are expressions of resistance and acknowledgement, allowing Tom to state that this may be how it superficially is but that he remains unaffiliated. And these differences are additional contexts for the confession of remorse-free estrangement that constitutes the narrative as a whole.  
                  In the course of the concluding bacchanal Tom is told, ‘It was a foolish idea coming over to Ireland to relive the past, when all grown people know the past is only in books.’ Well, not only. But whatever about this remark’s accuracy, it does underline the status of time in the book, both in how it is both the medium of memory and of the present (and, as noted, there are a few flash-forwards too, bringing to mind T.S. Eliot’s formulation: ‘Time present and time past/Are both perhaps present in time future/And time future contained in time past’). Even the remark itself is coloured by temporality, coming too late as it obviously does. The result is that, intriguing as the presences of, say, James Liddy, Leland Bardwell, Philip Hobsbaum and related figures may be, theirs are walk-on roles, appropriate representatives of that time and place. Their names remain with us, but in themselves, like Tom himself, they are embodiments of transience, just passing through. Time is a lot more powerful than any of them are, a superior character, as it were, replete with unpredictable agency and archival authority. It might be that, as Tom is told, ‘You talk too much of the past and your part in it’. But there’s a strong sense throughout that one of the few sure things is that spending time is our basic enterprise, an outlay whose recompense is as dubious as it is inevitable.  
                  Those lines of Eliot continue, ‘If all time is eternally present/All time is unredeemable’. Tom would appear to go along with that, at least up to a point, as with everything else. On the other hand, there it also seems that acknowledging transience, as memory inevitably does, is a way of not being at its mercy. And it may be argued that such acknowledgment is the novelist’s singular office, given his engagement with duration, change, mutability, persistence, the whole chronological apparatus of story. For that reason, perhaps, one of a kind though St. Patrick’s Day might be, it also glancingly gives its avatars their due  Ulysses, Under the Volcano, The Ginger Man being those most broadly hinted at obvious cases in point. Tom does come across as a something of a latter-day Stephen Dedalus, death-haunted,  recalling to the reader Stephen’s memorable borrowing: Il se promène, au lisant le livre de lui-même. He also has elements of Lowry’s Geoffrey Firmin, a soused consul from another country, his own state of mind. And if Tom is a peppery type of presence, the kinship between this book’s pub-crawl core and the world of The Ginger Man is plain enough.

                  The glimpses of these works, and numerous others, in St. Patrick’s Day help the reader find some bearings in its complicated discursive domain, and they also affirm the possibility of capturing transience while at the same time rendering it. A kind of continuity, however uneven, is thus paradoxically proposed whereby the impermanence of experience is a precondition for its retention. In that way, reading and writing are models of temporality, making their mark but always moving on to the next surprising thing. The particularly layered, stylistically unadorned treatment of this type of conceptual material is undoubtedly demanding, not that Tom or his author are going to apologise for that. Nor should they. And that’s not the only reason the book could get up people’s noses. But if in its simultaneous combinations and dislocations, its momentariness and recollection, St. Patrick’s Day provokes, in the long run it’s worth it. We could do with a bit more provocation.  

GEORGE O'BRIEN is the author of many books and in particular: THE VILLAGE OF LONGING and DANCEHALL DAYS which are classic memoirs about his life in Ireland.  

Saturday, September 10, 2016


The first copies of ST PATRICK’S DAY another day in Dublin arrive here on East First Street in Manhattan on August 8, 2016. 
In my mind the book began on the day I arrived in Dublin on the over-night ferry from Glasgow in September, 1964.  That is not to say I began writing the book on that sunny day, as I remember, stepping from the ferry and finding my way to Upper Gardner Street that first morning to find the bedsit where I would spend the first two days in Dublin…
I want this writing to be a record of both that moment in Dublin and what is happening to the now printed version of those years of days of minutes. 
Since 8 August, 2016… a reading has been arranged for at 192 Books at 192 Tenth Avenue on 28 September 2016  at 7pm   
I will also be at the bookshop at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana on 9 November and I am said to be meeting with students and faculty on the 10th of November.
And Marek Waldorf commented on the book at Good Reads:
Reminding me that we had talked digitally about his book and my book when his book was published by Turtle Point Press
AVAILABILITY.   As far as I know  McNally Jackson on Prince Street in Manhattan and 192 Books are the only bookstores in the world to carry ST. PATRICK’S DAY another day in Dublin.    It is available from Amazon (around the world it seems) and Barnes and Noble  and some other commercial websites. I hope it will one day be available at the University of Notre Dame bookstore.   
REVIEWS.   To date there have been no advance reviews in Publishers Weekly Library Journal of Kirkus.  At a later date I will describe the likely reason for that as my previous book GOING TO PATCHOGUE was reviewed in these places.   But that was a long time ago as was pointed out to me by Tom Whalen who reminded me that it is rare indeed for an author to have in my case a book published 24 years after my previous book, GOING TO PATCHOGUE--- though a paperback of that book was rather reluctantly published by Dalkey Archive in 2010 and is still in print as is my first book THE CORPSE DREAM OF N. PETKOV published in 1987 in hardcover by Dalkey Archive and later released in paper back by Northwestern University Press in 2000.  A Bulgarian version of PETKOV appeared in the “thick” journal SVREMENIK in Sofia in 1991.  There is sometimes talk of an actual book version of it in Sofia, but nothing comes of this.
FUTURE.  I KNOW I KNOW.  Things have changed.  Both of my previous books were reviewed in the New York Times.  Articles have been written about me and the books in both the New York Times and Newsday… but that is my impersonation of the aging actress or actor looking at his clippings collection as the house grows dusty.  A familiar figure.  Back then there were three bookstores within a brief drive of Patchogue.  St Marks Bookstore is gone…
I wait.  I look to the un-published books:  EMPTY AMERICAN LETTERS.