Dark Shoes on a Doorstep
- The Bend for Home by Dermot Healy
Harvill, 307 pp, £6.99, May 1997, ISBN 1 86046 354 1
Dermot Healy has been a presence in Irish literature for some time. He has published a collection of short stories, Banished Misfortune (1982), two novels, Fighting with Shadows (1984) and A Goat’s Song (1993), a book of poetry, The Ballyconnell Colours (1992), and has written and directed a number of plays. He founded and edited an influential community arts journal, Force 10, and has been active in regional and community theatre, particularly in the Sligo area, where he lives. With writers such as Eugene McCabe, Tom McIntyre and Michael Harding he shares a commitment to local territories of the imagination and their distinct idioms, giving us access to a set of rich dialects and views of the world, on the one hand, and, on the other, setting up a healthy opposition to the Dublin/London nexus as the centre of the Irish writer’s world. They all deal in an oblique way with the ever-present darkness of Northern Ireland; living close to the Border provides special insights into that intractable situation. They are also in their way ‘experimental’, taking sentences in new directions while remaining faithful to the spoken language. In his novels, Healy’s preoccupations have been physical and emotional displacement, family turmoil, alcoholism and the fraught nature of heterosexual relationships: all subjects of particular importance to a country which is undergoing a painful process of self-examination, as can be seen in the series of referenda held during the Eighties and Nineties on issues such as divorce and abortion, which have forced us to look at the nature of the Irish family and the central and destructive role played by the Catholic Church in the crucial area of sexuality. The novels are also concerned with the business of writing itself and with Healy’s struggle to find his own voice, which finally emerges with full force in A Goat’s Song.
There is a gap of almost ten years between Fighting with Shadows and A Goat’s Song, and while we are very recognisably with the same writer in both novels, the quality of the writing has strengthened immeasurably in the later book. Both have at their centre the tensions between men and women, North and South, Catholic and Protestant, drunkenness and sobriety. Healy is not in any sense a schematic writer, however; he prefers to trust to language and where it might take him. In Fighting with Shadows, it takes him into a kind of turmoil which he cannot quite clarify; and the novel sometimes reads like a first draft, over-philosophical and a little fey:
Anyway, desire was there that sees only the wholeness of things. No matter, no matter. They danced. Tins were being drummed in the back yard. The sound carried down to the ears of the soldiers. To the drivers halted by the bridge. The family searched round the home place for all they had dreamed of. But it was just a dark place at the foot of the mountain. So for Joseph, who could tell nothing of time passing, the short distance to the door took years, his parents followed, haunted by things no one will tell.
Healy cannot quite manage either the first sentence or the last phrase. In between, we get the short descriptive sentences he writes so well. Reading A Goat’s Song after Fighting with Shadows is like seeing an out-of-focus image suddenly slide into crystalline clarity. The poetry is subdued but not abandoned; we know where we are at every second, there are no longueurs, and things move confidently, with a sure rhythm: