James Joyce the pub: a sobering concept

Restaurant serves literary allusion lukewarm, and dipped in cliche

Observations

March 16, 2003|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,Sun Staff

St. Patrick's Day is upon us, which means it's time to raise a pint and ponder this year's Irish puzzle: How in God's name did the greatest writer of the 20th century become a pizza?

This is the question that comes to mind when one visits one of Baltimore's most popular new destinations, the James Joyce Irish Pub & Restaurant at the corner of President and Aliceanna streets. The restaurant, open since November in the ground floor of the parking garage of the new Inner Harbor Marriott, is your typical Irish-theme spot: wooden partitions imported from the home country, reliable shepherd's pie and corned beef, folk music piped over the speakers, the inevitable Guinness.

All of which, of course, makes it indistinguishable from most other Irish pubs between here, Disney World and Dublin, except for one particular: the Joyce thing.

The pub's owner, Washing-ton-area restaurateur James Fagen, decided that the way to give his new place the true Irish imprint was to name it for the country's most famous writer.

And he didn't stop at the name.

Waiters at the restaurant wear shirts with Joyce's profile stitched on the chest, as if the long-chinned, bespectacled face is as true an Irish emblem as the leprechaun. The restaurant requested the address of 616 President St. -- June 16 being the day of Leopold Bloom's life that is captured in Ulysses.

Photos of Joyce adorn the walls, including a couple of toddler shots in the men's room, right next to the poster with photos of Irish toilets. And the menu offers, in addition to the standard pub fare, "Joyce Pizza," "Joyce Steak," "Joyce Ice Cream" and "Molly Bloom's Chicken."

Molly Bloom's chicken? What, indeed, does the dish -- with spinach, red peppers and a cream cheese mousse wrapped in bacon in a Parmesan crust -- have to do with the adulterous heroine of Ulysses? Does one, after tasting it, declare in resounding affirmation, as she does at the book's close, "Yes I said yes I will yes"?

And what about that pizza, a potato pie topped with onions, peppers, spinach and cheddar? Does one, after a single slice, lapse into a stream-of-consciousness monologue littered with words like "moocow," "egoarch" and "rhubarbarous"?

No standard-bearer

The managers of the restaurant, amiable men with genuine-article brogues, say the link between their establishment and Joyce is clear.

"Joyce himself was well renowned for frequenting pubs and bars in Dublin. He wasn't just a major literary character but also a character around town," said manager Bernard O'Higgins. In addition, he said, owner Fagen comes from Mullingar, a town 60 miles west of Dublin where Joyce spent some time in his late teens.

As for the Joyce pizza? "Well, it's just an Irish dish, it's got potato in it, which is something you find on any table in Ireland. We were just really trying to blend in the Joyce theme with everything," explained general manager David Cahill, who added that the pub's chosen name "is a lot more colorful than calling it Paddy Murphy's."

All of which is well and good. Except that, when you think about it, the Joyce theme is about as misplaced as it could be.

For starters, the notion that Joyce is the ideal standard-bearer of the Irish flag is as soggy as chips soaked in gravy. Joyce spent most of his adult life in self-imposed exile outside the country, in Zurich, Rome, Trieste and Paris. Compatriots found his portrayals of their country so vulgar and insulting that many of them swore off him for decades. "To his Irish countrymen he is still obscene and very likely mad," his biographer Richard Ellman wrote 17 years after Joyce's death.

Ah, but the man loved his drink! comes the cry. Well, yes, Joyce was, like many other writers, known to go on bouts from time to time. But anyone who's read any of the stories in Dubliners knows that Joyce is hardly the ideal booster of Irish pub culture.

The stories are laced with devastating depictions of Irish alcoholism, accounts that drew partly on Joyce's own father, a fun-loving fellow whose drinking helped drive his wife and 10 children from the solid middle class into an endless flight from creditors. In "Counterparts," a lowly clerk abused by his boss has a few too many rounds at the pub on the way home from work. When he finally gets home, he finds the fire gone out and strikes his son in punishment. "I'll say a Hail Mary for you, pa, if you don't beat me," the boy pleads.

Hold whiskey, pour wine

And to the extent that Joyce himself drank, he was hardly a stout and whiskey man -- his drink of choice, befitting a converted Continental, was white wine. As a young man, he even turned down a job at the Guinness brewery -- as sure a disqualifier for pub-naming rights as ever there was.

To be sure, Fagen is not the first to think that Joyce, despite all the above, is a proper pub namesake. James Joyce pubs under other owners also grace Calgary, Brussels and Atlanta, among other towns.

Which isn't entirely surprising. At a time when Ernest Hemingway is used to sell cigars and Virginia Woolf is up for an Oscar, a bar owner hardly can be faulted for thinking that the best way to market a new pub is to slap a writer's name on it. Who knows, we may soon see Dante's Pizzeria or Goethe's Schnitzel-haus.

For the hordes of Baltimoreans flocking to the new pub, the Joyce logo carries with it a certain panache, a cultured knowingness. There may even be some Joyce discussion groups at the bar on Bloomsday. That's only appropriate, for as the pub menu tells you, "James Joyce was one of the most discussed figures in contemporary literature," which is a little like summarizing Johnny Unitas' career by saying that a lot of kids wanted his autograph.

Asked if they've read James Joyce, Baltimore's bar-hoppers can now answer, "No, but I've been there for Happy Hour."

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