A young man faces death as he seeks his father

February 14, 1993|By William Robertson | William Robertson,Knight-Ridder News Service


Paul Watkins.

Random House.

221 pages. $20.

There are some things you'd better not be afraid of, and death is one of them.

Over the many years I have been reviewing books, I think I have been waiting for an occasion to write that sentence. But it doesn't spring from me so much as it vaults from the pages of Paul Watkins' novel "The Promise of Light."

For death and the will to act in the face of it are at the center of this adventure set in the early 1920s, when a small, undisciplined army of men and women fought the English to a standstill and created the Irish Free State.

The hero is Ben Sheridan, a young Irish-American fresh out of college and about to go to work for a bank in Rhode Island. His prospects for a respectable, if dull, life are shattered when the man he believes is his father -- the fire chief on an island near Newport -- is injured, and dies after a blood transfusion from Ben.

The doctor tells Ben that Arthur Sheridan could not possibly be his biological father. Driven by the need to know who his parents are, Ben sets out for Ireland aboard a small freighter, which, unbeknown to him, is carrying arms to the Irish Republican Army.

He is put out on the beach with a load of guns in western Ireland. He is immediately trapped in a skirmish with the English, at which point the story takes on an immediacy that lasts until the final scene.

What will happen to him, Ben asks those nearby.

" 'Same things as will happen to us, unless you decide to lie there all morning,' " a man answers. " 'In that case you'll be dead by sunrise.' "

Ben's innocence is gone in a second: "I watched his thick boots disappear through the razor grass. I tried to be calm and think straight. Tried to imagine my home, at least long enough to settle down my heart. But no pictures came. It was as if home had never existed, as if the island . . . had bled into my mind through a dream. And now I was awake and they were gone and had never been there at all."

Gradually Ben's chances of revealing himself to the authorities are foreclosed, and, having no choice if he wants to find his father, he becomes caught up in the Irish nationalist struggle.

As it turns out, his foster father, Arthur Sheridan, had been a folk hero of sorts, which assures Ben a measure of protection in his new life. He settles into the daily routine and nightly violence of the seacoast village of Lahinch, never flinching from what is required for his survival, never letting thoughts of death paralyze him into inaction.

After a long struggle, Ben does find his father, but not without paying an enormous price in violence and pain to himself and others. Retaining his humanity in the face of death is his constant test.

Paul Watkins is 28. California-born, he is the son of Welsh parents and was educated in the United States and England. This is his fourth novel. His first, "Night Over Day Over Night," was nominated for the prestigious Booker Prize. With his intense narrative drive and his ability to be literary without seeming so, he is a writer who should richly reward readers of many desires for years ahead.

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