Alphabetical

Daniel Soar

  • That They May Face the Rising Sun by John McGahern
    Faber, 298 pp, £16.99, January 2002, ISBN 0 571 21216 6

The setting is a lake in Leitrim, near the beginnings of the River Shannon, not far from the Border. The nearest town isn’t referred to by name, though if you spend long enough looking at the right map (Ordnance Survey of Ireland, 1:50,000 Discovery Series, No. 33, top right-hand corner) you will see Shruhaun, the village on the way to it. If you head away from the lake in one direction you will pass the village, which has two bars and an abbey; then the unnamed town, which might be Fenagh, or maybe Garvagh; then Dromod, the end of the branch line, the station having survived because of the local coal; then Rooskey, on the edge of Co. Roscommon, with its bridge over the river; until at last you get to Roscommon town, somewhere you might have heard of. John McGahern’s new novel demands a kind of triangulation if you’re to make sense of it. Carrick-on-Shannon is (perhaps) a short drive away; in the other direction you’ll get to Longford in a while. If you don’t try to make sense of it, the barely mentioned place-names can only remind you how lost you are.

It appears to be a novel of place. The events are quiet and agricultural: a funeral, a wedding, a harvest. The central characters (through whose eyes we almost see) are Joe and Kate Ruttledge, who have been living by the lake for an unspecified number of years. There’s a lambing season and hay-baling season; there’s a heron. There’s a stage when wild mint begins to grow, a week or so before you can smell it. Joe was born nearby, but they lived in England for a time, doing advertising work. When they decided to get away, the Shah, Ruttledge’s uncle, found them the house by the lake. It’s not clear exactly what they were getting away from. ‘What do you find wrong with England?’ Ruttledge was asked when they first arrived by the man who sold them the house, Jimmy Joe McKiernan, who as well as being auctioneer and funeral director is the local head of the Provisional IRA. ‘Nothing,’ Ruttledge replied, ‘but it’s not my country and I never feel it’s quite real or that my life there is real. That has its pleasant side as well. You never feel responsible or fully involved in anything that happens. It’s like being present and at the same time a real part of you is absent.’ If England wasn’t real, this place, we imagine, must be; it’s true at least that nowhere else exists. Take Mary and Jamesie, the Ruttledges’ closest neighbours. Mary says: ‘Do you have any earthly idea where Italy is? I declare to God he’ – her husband – ‘doesn’t know the difference between Florence and Mullingar. You couldn’t take him anywhere.’ At Christmas, they travel to Dublin to stay with their son and his family; Jamesie is a hit (he always is), but being away nearly kills him. The Shah spent three days on Lough Derg once, and when he goes away with his niece he is in agony: two holidays are enough for any lifetime. John Quinn, famous for his love of women, is made to chase a fleeing wife across Ireland, and from all the talk you might suppose he’d been around the globe.

Because That They May Face the Rising Sun does without points of reference, or markers you might use to judge where you are, the very particular place it describes also feels like the only place on earth. It’s a clever trick, and it makes for good stories. Jamesie likes to tell the one about his brother Johnny, who went to England after Anna Mulvey, the girl he loved. Johnny is a mythical figure: ‘the best shot this part of the country has ever seen’, ‘the whole world at his feet’. He’s Synge’s Playboy – and, appropriately, he once played the Playboy – lord of everywhere, or so it seems to him and those around him, who have nothing to measure him by.

Like most of McGahern’s novels, That They May Face the Rising Sun drops you in the middle of someone else’s conversation, leaving you to find your own bearings, but it does so more radically than has been the case before. His first book, The Barracks (1963), begins classically, with a complete and pleasingly trivial catalogue of the thoughts of Elizabeth Reegan as she darns socks in the failing light before her stepchildren interrupt her with a routine that is, as we learn, their standard evening patter. The latest novel doesn’t depend in any such way on familiar fictional patterns, and there are few interior moments to tell you how a character reacts to what is spoken and what you should therefore make of it. Instead the conversation doesn’t end. Neighbours drop in on one another (doors are always open) to carry on where they left off, or to say the same thing again, to eat and drink. They are warm, comfortable, familiar; but their familiarity with one another makes the book initially illegible.

Only gradually, out of all the talk, do stories begin to emerge; eventually it becomes clear that there is a world among the characters, that they are various. The Ruttledges aren’t obviously different from their neighbours – they talk the same language – but their foreignness tells, slightly. Jamesie relates the Johnny story more than once. Page 5: ‘Then when she wrote to Johnny that she missed him and wanted him to come to England I don’t think his feet touched the ground for days.’ On page 96 the same sentence appears minus ‘to Johnny’. The Ruttledges don’t mind the repetition: they provide the cues that prompt what they know they’re about to hear. The second time the subject of the Playboy comes up, Ruttledge asks Mary if she remembers any of the lines. She doesn’t, so he quotes some. ‘That’s it. Terrible eejity stuff,’ she says. They behave to their friends with great gentleness, and not a word is spoken or related about what they might think of them: it’s the reader’s job to detect the differences between the couples. Where another writer might play with the contrasts, McGahern mutes them so as to make them nearly invisible. Bill Evans, who appears in the first few pages at the Ruttledges’ house to demand food and cigarettes, is of another kind again (though you wouldn’t know it in the first blaze of talk): he was brought up in an orphanage and has had various masters, some of whom beat him. He works for ‘her upstairs’, in a large house at the top of the hill, somewhere that’s never approached. The language of location – up and down – mirrors social distinctions that won’t be explained directly. The Shah, who has built up a business by the dismantled railway and has his dinner in the hotel in town, doesn’t share the common taste for gossip and stories: ‘to be a provider of such low detail was valley upon valley beneath him.’

Then there’s the idea of exchange. At one point, at the end of the summer, Jamesie is fishing for news (he’s the newsiest of all of them). Ruttledge says that he will be along soon to mow Jamesie’s meadows: ‘“Whenever it suits,” Jamesie answered with the most studied casualness, though for him it was the most important news in the whole evening.’ Neighbours help one another. Ruttledge has been building a shed, but he needs the help of Patrick Ryan, and Patrick, who works all over the country, comes and goes when he wills, and his comings are unpredictable. It takes an event of great magnitude to bring him Ruttledge’s way again – a death will do it – and his arrival is a gift of the highest kind. In this system, money is almost functionless. The Shah, who has made plenty, leaves Ruttledge to look after a strongbox containing £43,000: it can only be something to marvel at. There’s an odd tendency in the book for money to end up in trees: Ruttledge remembers trying to pay Patrick, before he knew better; Patrick threw the notes back at him and the wind took them into the nearest branches. The priest finds a five-pound note in another tree.

Not everything can be resolved by looking hard enough. What seems familiar and comfortable can become strange and threatening, irresolvable to the characters themselves. The mythical, magical Johnny, who visits in the summer, has lived a faint life in England. He works at the Ford factory in Dagenham. He is taken off the assembly line and into the canteen to clean the floors, then loses this job as well and becomes a handyman for Mr Singh, his Bentley-driving landlord. The London he lives in, with its boarding houses and cowed inhabitants, might be the Dublin of Dubliners – it’s a territory McGahern returns to in his short stories; his Dublin nobodies are sometimes also moral nobodies; it’s a site for weakness and strength. After losing his job, Johnny wants to come home for good, and suddenly Jamesie and Mary know that they can’t have him back. Johnny likes things ‘alphabetical’, in good order, the way he’s used to. No one else uses the word: it must have fallen from currency. He always has a grand welcome, but he doesn’t feel at home in the bars in the town, and he fades still further on a final visit. The place can no longer support him.

It gets worse. There’s the violence: around Jimmy Joe, for instance, outside whose bar in town two policemen can always be seen. There’s a march at Easter from the monument on Glasdrum to the graves in Shruhaun; Jamesie has a lily pinned to his lapel, and Ruttledge is disturbed. There’s a memory of another march, when Jamesie was in the fields with his father; they kept their heads down while the shooting went on. And there’s sexual violence (there often is in McGahern; some of his stories seem like barometer readings on a scale of violence and restraint): what does John Quinn do to all those wives? The violence is remembered or inferred: in the book’s present it translates into unwavering determination. Jimmy Joe sells a Republican paper to those who will take it; when they don’t he moves quietly on. Against this is Ruttledge, whose function is gentleness, who helps everyone without forcing his kindnesses on them, whose cattle are treated like royals. When Jimmy Joe arrives for the funeral at the end of the book, Jamesie sends Ruttledge to sit with him in a room upstairs because no one feels at ease with him there. Ruttledge doesn’t either, but he sits. There are silences; Jimmy Joe asks him politely about his cattle. There’s the slightest sense that Ruttledge admires his strength, without ever being able to understand or forgive it.

At one point, late on, familiarity disappears entirely. The Ruttledges arrive to find Mary and Jamesie watching Blind Date, not something you would imagine could be part of their world. And it isn’t: a long paragraph follows which describes each step of the show in curious slow detail. It’s TV as watched from the Moon. But other passages are equally strange when you look at them again. Early in the book the Ruttledges are at home, alone for once, and they begin to talk, taking it in turns to remember incidents from their arrival at the lake, telling each other what they already know; the scene becomes a recital in chorus, like a section of The Waves. This is the level of disguise McGahern deals in, beginning with writerly possibilities and then almost effacing them to make the result seem as ordinary and unwrought as possible. Any moment of lyricism is instantly disabled by a contrasting banality or a put-down, and when it seems a drama is about to unfold it is disallowed, or dodged.

In That They May Face the Rising Sun nothing happens and no one changes. It feels like a short story – something stated, unalterable – but it can’t work as well as a story, perhaps because there’s too much talk. Maybe the point is that it takes time to see what was there. Ruttledge tells Bill Evans: ‘Everybody comes from somewhere or other. None of us comes out of the blue air.’ It turns out that these people are constituted of memories and actuality, and some pasts, as for Bill Evans, are too painful to remember. One question is asked several times: would you change places with someone else? The answer tends to be no. When Jimmy Joe asked Ruttledge why he came away from England, he wondered if perhaps it was because he wanted to hear the birdsong. No. ‘They say we think the birds are singing when they are only crying this is mine out of their separate territories.’ The final location is inside the skin.