Hugh Leonard's 'Wild People': the playwright as deft novelist

On Books

July 28, 2002|By Michael Pakenham

Hugh Leonard, who lives in Ireland, is a playwright and screenwriter whose work is quite well known in the United States, especially among Americans fond of Ireland. His plays have included the Tony Award-winning Da and A Life. His screenplays include Widow's Peak. He has written extensively for television, particularly adaptations of major novels. He has published two volumes of autobiography, Home Before Night and Out After Dark. Now he's written a novel -- A Wild People (St. Martin's, 276 pages, $23.95).

Much of Leonard's story takes place at dinner parties and in pubs in Dublin, with conversations among people who are close and generally a bit tendentious. They are mainly married, in middle age. All are in Ireland, which, the narrator often emphasizes, is a very small country where there is little privacy and even less anonymity. Most are more or less intellectuals, though from economically humble backgrounds.

The narrator is TJ Quill, an obsessive movie enthusiast who has recently resigned as an insurance clerk to make a living as a writer and archivist of the films and papers of the late Sean O'Fearna, a four-time Oscar winning American director, who had an affected deep-dyed Irishness. There are similarities to John Ford in O'Fearna, though the other characters appear originals.

The narrative and the conversations rattle on with barbed ironies -- plays on simple classic literary themes turned upon themselves. Thorn Thornton, an aggressive opportunist, has talked O'Fearna's American widow into funding the archives and a biography. Quill's in his debt.

The interplay of petty power, of obligations and small deceptions, of dancing on the precipices of moral abysses, is enormously engaging, and, at best, brilliant. In Ireland, there is a common love of such fencing, often called "the fiddle," and Leonard has it down cold. Beneath it, there often lurks a kind of subtle cruelty.

Slowly, quite softly, the book becomes a drama of wills, of intrigues and half-truths and manipulations. Most are of no great moment or major consequence, but all the more human for that. I felt so gently brought into the lives of the main characters that their little private jokes began to be private jokes of mine, the slights stinging, little victories cause for celebration.

Quill's marriage to Greta is filled with tension, underlying inchoate hostility, which is intensified when Quill becomes rapturously involved with the Italian-born wife of a very successful Dublin businessman. Quill rather assumes that all marriages are quiet acts of ongoing war.

Leonard's prose, especially in dialogue, is archly funny, and often irony and cross-meanings are effective tools of characterization. Here is Quill, the narrator and central character, describing his wife's reaction to his having caught her eavesdropping on a telephone conversation he had just had with a friend:

"She said, 'You know I don't listen. I happened to overhear it.' Greta was adept at the practice of what, until sexism became a hanging offence, could be described as female handcrafts, except that she could not sew on a button and, unlike me, was a hopeless liar."

Leonard and the best of his characters relish the use and abuse of language. They also seem to celebrate the implacable insanity of life itself. The whole thing is ornamented with Quill's and others' vocabularies of metaphor, with lines from and references to classic movies from the 1930s to the 1950s.

Examples are mostly intricately interwoven, but typical is Quill's response to a gossip columnist who asks him -- and others -- to identify their favorite childhood toy. "I told her," Quill says, "that my very favorite was a tiny sled my father had made for me. 'He painted the name Rosebud on it,' I said. 'And then he took it from me and burned it.' ... I felt the wetness of real tears come into my eyes as I told her how I saw Rosebud go up in flames." The columnist earnestly writes down every word.

Leonard and his work are entirely and resoundingly Irish. But he gives no quarter to the sectarian and class obsessions that infest so many contemporary books about Ireland -- especially ones written for or by those who identify themselves as Irish but have little knowledge of the island itself. He deals with that affliction harshly. He presents a scene in a Dublin pub when Quill orders a Famous Grouse and soda:

"The publican, Mick Sullivan, rotated a finger in his ear as if deaf, then, concluding the brief floor show, said 'We don't do Scotch.' He was, as I should have remembered, devoutly pro-Provo, and apart from his 4-litre Jaguar, his Church's shoes, his Burberry raincoat, his bay rum from Trumpers of Jermyn Street, his Sporting Life and Daily Mirror, his bets at Cheltenham and Aintree, his Scotch beef, his wife's cabinet of Wedgwood and his mistress in Islington, was resolute in banishing all things British."

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