Respectability

Mary Hawthorne

  • The Seduction of Morality by Tom Murphy
    Little, Brown, 224 pp, £15.99, June 1994, ISBN 0 316 91059 7
  • A Goat’s Song by Dermot Healy
    Harvill, 408 pp, £14.99, April 1994, ISBN 0 00 271049 8

Tom Murphy’s play Too Late for Logic centres on the response of a psychically disintegrated family to the death of one of its members. An oracular, disembodied voice-over gives the summation: ‘A group of porcupines on a cold winter’s day crowded close together to save themselves from freezing by their mutual warmth. Soon, however, they felt each other’s spines, and this drove them apart again. Whenever their need brought them more closely together, this – evil – intervened, until, thrown this way and that, between the cold and the spines, they found a moderate distance from one another at which they could survive best.’ This same ‘evil’ – the quills of competing demands and interests with which the members of a family cannot help poking and pricking one another and which, keeping them separate, rule out the possibility of abiding love, though not the desire for it – is also at the heart of Murphy’s new book, a first novel, The Seduction of Morality.

The book-jacket bears a photograph of a very pretty, very Irish-looking young girl – long, thick ropes of braids, freckles, plaid smock – pausing before the viewer as she makes her way along a deserted country road. She has the disturbing look of someone who knows more than she ought to for her years. Murphy’s quizzical title looms menacingly above, and we worry that a sordid, now all too familiar tale will be told at ‘her’ expense. The book does in fact begin with a young girl, Vera O’Toole, who on the birth of a brother when she is three, is sent to live with her maternal grandmother (‘Mom’, she’s called) on her nearby farm, in the West of Ireland. Murphy doesn’t say much about this event, only that ‘the system of fostering-out was not unusual in the past’. Though a bond of love soon forms between the two, their relationship doesn’t diminish Vera’s longing to be a part of her absent family (or, rather, her fantasy of it) and an uncomprehending guilt that she isn’t. Nine and a half years later, an illegitimate son of Mom’s returns to live on the farm, an alarming event for Vera’s mother, since his presence jeopardises her inheritance of the farm. It is then that we suspect that Vera’s placement with her grandmother has been cynical – a stake of claim to her property. Vera’s mother expresses horror at the imminent arrival of the shameful proof of Mom’s immorality (‘A thing from a ditch!’ she screams in definition of her half-brother), but her impetuous decision to bring Vera home to her family (which by this time has grown to include two sisters, Marcia and Mary Jane) is motivated at least as much by spite and a concern for appearances as by fear for Vera’s moral contamination.

The principal events of the novel, however, take place years later, in 1974, when Vera is 37. The O’Toole children have assembled in Grange, their hometown, where all except Vera still live, to attend their mother’s funeral. Exiled once again, this time in New York City, Vera earns her living, as if to underscore her marginality, as ‘a call-girl ... a hooker, a prostitute’. Murphy doesn’t explain: in the manner of fables or the Bible, it’s just a fact. By contrast (Murphy is always juxtaposing opposites), Vera’s siblings are prosperous and privileged and, like all small-town swells, obsessively attentive to protocol. ‘All of them in public esteemed respectability so much that the slightest impropriety, real or imagined, actually made them look frightened.’ Murphy appropriates the 19th-century device of the will to inflame the passions of his characters and to facilitate his raising of moral questions. Vera is bequeathed the family’s most valuable property, the Imperial Hotel, which she has no interest in owning. On returning to New York, she puzzles, rather unconvincingly, over how to cede it to her brother and sisters without the appearance of smarminess. She ponders the pitfalls both of surrendering it gratis (‘Now ... couldn’t that grand, unconditional gesture be interpreted as a clever tactic of buying her way into the family’s affections by making them eternally grateful to her?’) and of asking a nominal price: ‘£10,000? She had no right to it ... it could be seen as an act of selling herself out of the family. And that was the very last thing she wanted.’ Her siblings are meanwhile busy pilfering the hotel’s contents and tattling on one another by letter. At Christmas, after a debasing night with a senator, Vera, in a drunken act of self-abasement, sends them each a card: ‘I’m no fucking good. Make me an offer.’ The horrified siblings at once join forces to wrest the property away from her. Her brother Tom writes her an officious letter, declaring that the hotel will be sold by auction unless she has any objections. ‘PS,’ he writes, ‘Mom dead.’ Pascal says that true morality takes no heed of morality, and this is the sort of dialectic, in rather simplified form, that Murphy is aiming for here: conventional ‘morality’ is an ace up the sleeve, invariably and rather predictably employed to both mask and assist darker motives. If this were a morality play (which it in some ways resembles), it would fall to Vera to act the part of Morality; to Tom and Mary Jane, the parts, by turns, of Hypocrisy, Cynicism and Greed; to Marcia, the part of something like Passive Complicity.

When Vera returns to Ireland, this time by stealth, she learns from Mom’s neighbour, in emphasis of Tom’s callousness, that she has been dead since February. In a state of profound depression, Vera heads for the wrong side of town, the New Estate – the Punjab, people call it – in search of an adolescent sweetheart, the illegitimate Finbar Reilly, a knacker who makes a partial living hawking religious medals made of tin. Vera conjures up memories of her doomed romance with Finbar, but whatever residue of innocence he might have held onto, the intervening years of social discrimination, poverty and absent love have wiped clean away. He is an emotional cripple who’s never made love in a bed and looks to drink for release. Finbar lives in appalling, dysfunctional squalor – just the sort of place, Vera determines, in which to ride out her depression. She lapses into the persona of a kind of Crazy Jane, and she and Finbar pass their few days and nights in a blur of alcohol and uneasy sex; their interlude culminates in the physical abuse born of blasted emotional circuitry; Finbar’s proposal of marriage, when Vera declines it, is followed by a punch in the face.

Vera takes up secret residence in the closed-down hotel, alone with the confusion of her thoughts. ‘All her life she had wanted to do something in her hometown without being judged.’ The idea occurs to her, as it must, only when she realises its impossibility. The small Midwestern American town of Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street is not very different from Grange. For Murphy, the town is a larger version of the family, governed by rules of hierarchy and protocol which cannot be broached without serious consequence. Vera is as much a prisoner as Carol Kennicott until she experiences a marvellously simple epiphany – that her life-long ambition to ‘belong’ might not be worth it after all. Everything that follows is about the joys of surrender to transgression and of allowing the self full rein. Following Vera’s rebirth, which is signalled by a bath and a shampoo, Finbar arrives at the hotel with Marcia’s husband (‘The Greek’, he’s called), a member of the impoverished local gentry and a barrister who seldom practises law since he never rises before two. Realising sibling skulduggery is afoot, he has decided to defend Vera’s interests and takes on the job of delivering a letter to her about the future of the hotel Vera, Finbar and The Greek embark on an illicit romp – endless booze, more sex – in the impish spirit of Godard’s Bande à part. Taboos broken and atoned for, Vera and her family are once more reconciled – repositioned, rather, to maintain a moderate, survivable distance from one another. There is one more lovely surprise, which enables Vera to realise her ‘heart’s desire’, allowing her to step into Mom’s sturdy and comfortable shoes.

Murphy has an ear well-tuned to the speech of his people, and a capacity to embrace them despite their hypocrisy. Characters are sometimes wicked he seems to be saying, but their wickedness is just symptomatic to the greater wickedness of the marketplace and the Church. The trouble with the book is that for all its arresting passages and excellent moments, abstraction has grabbed too much of the land. We sense that as Murphy is showing us something big, he wants to show us something intimate as well, but he keeps circling his characters, unable to come in close, Vera’s relationship with Mom, lovingly and charmingly related, seems sentimental when contrasted with that of her cut-throat siblings. They in turn conform so much to type as to preclude any sustained interest. Finbar the Medal Man remains mired in the role of social out cast, moulded by the forces of social oppression, and even Vera herself, billowy, accepting earth mother though she may be, is exasperatingly ungraspable, a figure caught only momentarily, as if in the headlights of a passing car. The kind of ellipsis Murphy allows for here fares better on the stage, where intangibles – the movements of bodies; the nuances of speech – fill in the blanks. The speech of the characters in much of his work is fractured and at cross-purposes, but then inarticulateness has a poignancy that has got lost here. The most vivid character is The Greek, who is very reminiscent of J.P.W. King in Murphy’s wonderful play, The Gigli Concert. The Greek’s (like King’s) refusal to conform, his intelligence, his history, has a real authenticity. He is emblematic of the complexities of Ireland and sounds its spiritual confusion in the face of a waning belief in God, and its bewilderment at the encroachments of progress more fully than anyone else in the book. Clad in his father’s elegant, anachronistic clothes, he is the most naked character of all.

While Murphy explores the tragedy (and sometimes the comedy) of the Irish family, Dermot Healy’s new novel, A Goat’s Song, ponders the tragedy of the Irish couple, whose irreconcilable differences are in this case set against the irreconcilable differences of Catholic and Protestant in Northern Ireland. The book opens in Belmullet, on the West Coast, with a newly sober Jack Ferris (a Catholic from Leitrim) feverishly awaiting the arrival of his estranged lover, Catherine Adams (a Presbyterian raised in Fermanagh); she’s off in Dublin starring in a play he’s written. Jack writes ‘billy tunes’, ‘goat songs’, he tells her when they first meet. ‘Tragedies. Tragos – goat. Oide – song. From the Greek.’ The two became involved some years after a televised and widely publicised incident of police brutality perpetrated by Catherine’s father, Jona than Adams, an officer with the RUC in Derry in 1968. The family, in search of anonymity, headed southward, eventually taking up permanent summer residence on the Mullett peninsula. When after several days Catherine fails to appear, Jack succumbs to drink with the kind of vengeance that typically follows on the heels of the alcoholic’s abstinence. One evening he gets drunk in the hotel bar with a couple from the North. ‘The Northerner is by nature a military man. We are reared to it,’ the stranger tells him. And as the book unfolds Catherine and Jack’s relationship is inextricably tied to the militarism of the North.

Shortly after they become involved with each other, Catherine writes and asks Jack to come and live with her in Belfast, where she has recently finished school. They take up residence in an all-Protestant neighbourhood at a time when Jack’s Catholicism, had it been discovered, would have been likely to cause his death. Jack, who appears to have no preference as to politics or religion, can’t resist taking foolhardy chances. He has the writer’s insistent curiosity to know the people around him. By day, he hangs around with an ex-British Army officer with whom, in a fog of alcohol, he listens to old Cat Stevens records; by night, with Republicans in a pub on the Ormeau Road. His risk-taking terrifies and infuriates Catherine, and seems merely an annoying bid for attention until you realise that Healy sees it as bearing on Jack’s identity, which is slowly being subsumed by the demands of a menacing political correctness (orange as well as green), by an increasingly transgressive relationship with Catherine, by copious amounts of alcohol. Of the Derry incident, Healy writes: ‘Because someone had knocked off his hat, Jonathan Adams had started a war.’ The words sound wrong and melodramatic, especially coming at the end of a chapter, but perhaps they are appropriate after all.

When Catherine at last ends their relationship – it’s really a kind of mercy killing – Jack, though he realises that she has ‘saved them from each other’, is left with his grief and a gaping hole in his identity to come to terms with. To exorcise her and to redeem himself, he embarks on an imaginative project to recreate her. To be rid of her, he must write about her, ‘not as herself, but as someone else, someone different’. And this is how the history of their relationship is revealed. (Not surprisingly, ‘Jack’s’ narrative is at variance with the ‘facts’ as they are offered at the beginning of the book.) Jack attempts to reconstruct the layers of history – of family, of community, of place – which shape the individual, the layers which have shaped Catherine and which have shaped them as a couple. He begins his narrative with the suicide by hanging of Jonathan Adams’s next door neighbour, a Catholic named Matti Bonner, when Catherine is 13. This section of the book, which is almost a novella within a novel, offers an often engrossing portrait of Adams and of the mysterious, frequently contradictory machinations that constitute his identity. He is devoutly Protestant (as a young man, he had wanted to be not a constable but a minister) and fervently anti-Catholic; yet one of his closest friends is Matti Bonner. The combination of his own shocking behaviour at Derry, Matti’s suicide, and his increasing contact with Irish culture in the South sets in motion a longing for understanding. The paradox inherent in Jonathan’s love of Matti and his hatred of the Catholic underscores the irreconcilable differences between politics and human affection.