I long have been a big fan of Amnesty International, one of a tiny handful of organizations of ostensible good will that in my experience has never succumbed to empire building or blathering political foolishness. Now 40 years old, it gets on with the job of trying to save people from abuse by wielders of awful powers. As a fund-raising exercise for Amnesty, now comes "Yeats Is Dead! -- A Mystery" by 15 Irish writers, edited by Joseph O'Connor (Knopf, 259 pages, $23).
The idea is not exactly fresh. Somewhere back in the latter Dark Ages, I believe the year was 1969, a handful of writing stiffs at Newsday and a few of their pals put together a serial novel, mainly softcore porn, titled "Naked Came the Stranger," in which each writer gave the next what was hoped to be an impossible challenge of bringing the story out of some blind alley. There was a flurry of excitement about it.
But those were American scriveners, a largely domesticated breed. Unleashing a herd of Irish authors with instructions to write naughtily is the rough equivalent of turning loose in a formal garden a like number of mature, undernourished hippopotamuses. So, much of this book is written in egregious and lurid -- often execrable -- excess.
The core of the story is what happens to the sole, original copy of the hitherto unknown final work of James Joyce. Needless to say, if legitimate it's a priceless treasure. And what happens to the manuscript -- in the hands of these Irish rogues -- is a roller-coaster ride of harrowing adventures.
As described by one master criminal who is trying to get her hands on it: "It is pure conceptual literature. ... Mathematical ideas, scientific symbols, biological formulae. Six hundred beautiful pages. All written out in the master's own hand. Yeats Is Dead! The novel released from the narrow cage of meaning. Abstract art in literary form. A new literature for the new world." In other words, gobbledygook. It's coming out just in time for Bloomsday, June 16, the day on which the events of Joyce's "Ulysses" occur.
Here, step by dreadful step, with their offending authors:
Chapter 1, by Roddy Doyle (six novels, etc., including "Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha"), starts the book rollicking off with conversation between two men who have apparently shot a third dead. Doyle builds a rather enchanting portrait of true criminal character -- in both men, who turn out to be policemen. By the chapter's end it becomes quite clearly impossible for a book of a mere 259 pages to unscramble all the criminal, psychological, familial and other complexities.
Chapter 2, by Conor McPherson (lots of plays, and screenplays too), takes the dead man up and builds him an unfathomable life. Moody stuff that adds very considerably to the complexity.
Chapter 3, by Gene Kerrigan (six nonfiction books, including "Hard Cases," a distinguished journalist), does a remarkable job on police interrogation methods -- a chilling suggestion to stay forever out of the hands of the Irish national police.
Chapter 4, by Gina Moxley (plays, including "Danti Dan"), stirs the pot and deepens the criminal intrigue.
Chapter 5, by Marian Keyes (short stories and five very successful novels, including "Lucy Sullivan Is Getting Married"), manages some artful manic elaborations of character and domesticity. Describing Patsy Roberts, one of several women who take very active parts in the drama: "She was scaring the living daylights out of him now. She was a handsome-looking woman, with a terrifying magnificence about her. Her blue eyes glittered with the absence of mental health."
Chapter 6, by Anthony Cronin (major biographies, including of Samuel Beckett; several volumes of lauded poetry; a memoir; books of criticism; other nonfiction), takes the reader on a very realistic visit to the pains and pleasures of police command bureaucracy.
Chapter 7, by Owen O'Neill (standup comedian, playwright and film writer), brings along a lush salad of sadomasochistic sex -- always a neat confection inside a police department. Detective Superintendent Andrew Andrews, who until he is killed is the toughest, meanest cop in all Ireland, has just completed his regular session of being handcuffed and sexually -- well, abused is not quite it -- by the selfsame Patsy Roberts.
Chapter 8, by Hugo Hamilton (six well-received novels, including "Sad Bastard"), follows with lots more blood, more bodies.
Chapter 9, by Joseph O'Connor (four novels, plays, short fiction, and comic journalism -- "The Secret World of the Irish Male"), does a majestic job explaining the utter sniveling cowardice of a policeman who, of course, becomes a national hero.
Chapter 10, by Tom Humphries (a leading sportswriter, with five books), brings in the lady Minister for Justice, burning "crinkly little holes" in her sky-blue nylon sheets with the hot ash of her slim Havana as she tries to seduce a reluctant, virginal police sergeant.