Father Bosco to Africa

Walter Nash

  • The Red Men by Patrick McGinley
    Cape, 304 pp, £10.95, January 1987, ISBN 0 224 02386 1
  • Chat Show by Terence de Vere White
    Gollancz, 207 pp, £9.95, January 1987, ISBN 0 575 03910 8
  • Leaden Wings by Zhang Jie, translated by Gladys Yang
    Virgo, 180 pp, £9.95, January 1987, ISBN 0 86068 759 7
  • Russian Novel by Edward Kuznetsov, translated by Jennifer Bradshaw
    Quartet, 285 pp, £12.95, January 1987, ISBN 0 7043 2522 5
  • Richard Robertovich by Mark Frankland
    Murray, 216 pp, £9.95, January 1987, ISBN 0 7195 4330 4

Patrick McGinley’s pastoral parable, The Red Men, begins with Gulban Heron, rural overlord of a hotel, a shop and four sons. There is dark-haired Jack, capable, ruthless, dissolute, his father’s favourite, and there are three carrot-polled losers, the red men of the title: Cookie, a jaded man of letters, typically apt to give life a literary form and content; cynical Joey, with his fire-scarred face, who mistrusts the emotions and gives his mind to geology and shopkeeping; and Father Bosco, with his fire-damped soul, reminiscently plagued by lust and distressed by the loneliness of his calling. There is also Pauline, the brothers’ companion since childhood, who keeps the hotel books and is about to marry Jack.

These are the personae of the House of Heron, as the hotel is portentously called, one of the rival enclaves in Mr McGinley’s narrative. Its counter is Fort Knox, a house so called because of its high surrounding wall, occupied by Mrs Bugler, a ripe widow whose sports are of the supine sort, and her fey daughter Alicia. Imagine, then, two castles, one of lusty enterprise, the other of enterprising lust, set against the backdrop world of the stone-strewn, sheep-habited headland, the moody sea, the beckoning offshore island, the token tenantry of rustic characters, enigmatic, pragmatic, dogmatic, deeply enduring. Readers may detect an odour of Lawrence here and there, or catch a whiff of Cold Comfort Farm: but the scene is deepest Ireland.

Onto this pastoral-mythical set Mr McGinley brings the machinery of a plot derived from the parable of the talents. On his 77th birthday, Gulban presents each of his sons with £10,000, and announces that his heir will be the one who, after a year, can demonstrate the best use of the gift. The anticipated prize-winner is go-getting Jack, who, however, goes and gets himself killed in a car accident, leaving three brothers now burdened with the perturbing possibility of success. Their troubles are presently compounded when Gulban suffers a stroke and becomes their stricken Jehovah, bed-ridden judge of their inadequacies. They suffer from introspection and self-doubt, and their efforts, pathetic or comical, lose the name of action. Father Bosco, a reluctant contender, meditates the possibility of turning the hotel into a haven for elderly priests; Joey buys himself a motor-boat, and an island from which to take a fairer view of things; Cookie falls ideally in love with Alicia, writes her a cheque (to support her studies), and is realistically bedded by her anthropophagic mama.

Happenings accumulate like breakers, and yet it seems that nothing is made to happen. The impulse of the plot falters, the humour sours, the Irish mood turns oddly Greek and doom-laden as the actors discover the truths of their own histories and natures. The last and most hurtful revelation comes with Gulban’s death, when the red men learn that Jack was not their brother and that Pauline, beneficiary of the will, is their half-sister. With this, the story is not so much concluded as deadlocked, and it remains only to despatch the characters: Joey to oblivion in the sea beyond his island, Father Bosco to Africa, perennial exile of the penitent, and Cookie to America, last resort of the PhD. Pauline is left with her inheritance and her custody of the truth, still in diverse senses steadfastly keeping the books straight.

Mr McGinley is inventive and eloquent, his humour puckish and Paddy-wry; he has a fine command of comic irony (how poignantly funny, for instance, that Cookie, so thoroughly seduced by a skilled erotic practitioner, should be writing a thesis on the idea of seduction as extended metaphor in the works of Samuel Richardson), and his evocations of landscape and seascape are successful, not simply as description, but as definitions of a mythic environment. There is much to praise, and yet there remains one fairly considerable reservation: the book belies the promise of its opening chapters, which predicate action. Posed as agents, the characters are victims; their author directs them into a dispirited ante-room of hope, where through their reflections, their memories, their conversations, their perceptions of each other, they elaborately articulate the credentials of their misery. It may be that – to adapt a saying of Yeats – passive suffering is no theme for a novel; it may be that the parable grows a shade too parabolic; but the upshot of it is that the reader loses concern for the red men and their ramifications. Almost memorable, they yet fade from the memory and vanish into artifice, as into a hedge of mist.

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