Friday, January 11, 2013

Fiction: As Close As You’ll Ever Be
by Seamus Scanlon

(Editor’s note: This review comes from New Yorker Marcelle Thiébaux, the author of The Stag of Love and last year’s historical romance, Unruly Princess).

Seamus Scanlon’s 23 stunning tales in his debut collection, As Close As You’ll Ever Be (Cairn Press), feature prize winners among them. About a third have appeared in literary magazines.

A Galway-born writer of bardic storytelling gifts, as well as a New York City professor and award-winning librarian, Scanlon creates a contemporary mythology of butchery, trouncings, shootouts and skull splittings in a parade of glorious violence perpetrated by righteously angry boys. These young warriors live and die in Ireland’s Belfast and Galway, and in a bar on Dorchester Avenue in South Boston called the Banshee. Weapons of choice can range from an axe to a Luger to cyanide. The young fighters and killers are motivated by family feeling, political injustice or sheer need.

Scanlon’s salty wit and gallows humor pervade his rich, sensuous, gut-warming prose. With all the graphic spillage of gore, there’s often an ironic detachment and a sense of history that carry his work to a realm of quirky grandeur. Style and language engage the reader; for instance, where the authorial voice achieves an incantatory resonance: “Pirates once our forefathers were. Snipers once we were. Soldiers true once we were. Heroes once we were for the Kings and Queens of England, for Dublin Castle.” Scanlon’s poignant young heroes of today bear psychic scars: “the hieroglyphs of near-death etched on him forever”; “Melancholy was imprinted on his face. The typical Irish tattoo.” The inspired boy gunmen of the Galway housing projects show an undaunted bravado against oppressors, sires and step-sires that evokes the bloody deeds of the giant-slaying lads and cattle-raiders of ancient Celtic folklore.

The narrator of the story “The Witness,” scornfully labeled a “college-educated prick” and decorated with school honors, confides that he was also “hard-wired for violence and gunplay” at an early age. He joins a gang robbery engineered by a manic ex-con, the psycho Pig McCann. The gang trashes an establishment called The Tote near the Galway racetrack, during which they execute a crime gorgeous in its viciousness. Afterwards, the narrator -- who has a moral sense after all -- delivers a shock conclusion and crowns his act with a wisecracking proverb.

In “The Perfect Son,” a young Irishman comes home to his long-suffering but still fine-looking mother. He confronts his father, who is near death. The childhood abuses and shattered bones the son once endured at the old man’s hands are something he can’t forgive. Techniques found in early Celtic and medieval poetry come into play with rhyme and alliteration in Scanlon’s rhythmic prose at a moment of jaw-clenching emotion: “[H]e locked me out, he knocked me out ... I killed him in my heart each day ... Child fantasy fermented into foulness.” At the mother’s bidding, the son grants the father a grueling death.

Girls have an important presence here, too. Scanlon displays his range of genres, veering to the farcical in “The Butterfly Love Song,” in which the girl-shy hero slinks over to the house of 14-year-old Lucy. He must keep a command-performance date with this formidable pagan goddess: “A rocker, king of the girls, smoker, brawler, sullen, muted, raging.” From the sofa the hero jumps ceiling-ward, a teacup flies, the television topples throwing sparks, and Lucy’s mom trips over Killer, the growling black Alsatian. The shivering hero awaits the ire of Lucy’s brothers. In tragic contrast is the superlative “My Beautiful, Brash, Beastly Belfast.” Before her brother’s eyes, the young girl Bridie takes a fatal bullet on the bridge of her nose. The flow of the girl’s “bright black-red blood” in the street and into her house remains unstaunched in the boy’s consciousness. The strength of his hatred for her killers drives him to plot his revenge with an exalted, near-religious fervor. He meditates on the beauty of his firepower, “the muzzle flash elegant, tapering into a jagged white corona of light ...”

In the tender concluding story, “On Her Birthday,” a man who’s been battered and stitched in many an old skirmish visits his failing mother, her “once-lustrous intelligence ravaged” and her memory gone. He takes her on a country outing. The narrator dwells, like Proust and Joyce, on the poetry of place names -- Navan and Trim, Newry, Ballinasloe, Salthill, then Tuam, Claremorris, Callow Lake, Cullneachtain. Motoring through Ireland’s history-drenched landscape, he recalls that one stretch was the haunt of 18th-century highwaymen in tricorn hats. His automobile is an “Opel Vectra sailing through the seas of the dark.” The image recalls what Scanlon tells us earlier, that the brash boys of Ireland claim descent from seafaring rovers.



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