Tales from Ireland

a well-told fat joke

Fiction of July

July 24, 2005|By Michael Shelden | Michael Shelden,Special to the Sun

THE HILL ROAD

By Patrick O'Keeffe. Viking. 225 pages.

This collection of four novellas set in Ireland is Patrick O'Keeffe's first book, and his publisher says he is "following in the footsteps of acclaimed writer William Trevor." This isn't the usual hype from an industry notorious for its overblown praise of mediocre talents. No, here is that rare thing -- an author who is even better than his publisher's blurbs proclaim.

If he is following in the footsteps of any of his countrymen, it's not the genteel craftsman Trevor, but someone far grander -- James Joyce, whose longest and greatest story "The Dead," seems to be the model for O'Keeffe's hauntingly beautiful tale "The Postman's Cottage," the jewel of this outstanding collection.

But don't simply take my word for it. Look at the syntactical magic that O'Keeffe can weave in a single sentence as he describes the dour postman of his title coming home to a devoted wife and young son after a bad day:

"He would walk in from work, enter the kitchen without a word, a deadened, distant and glassy look in his eyes, and his wife and son and the objects around him, such as doors or stairs, that she had spent all day polishing, were invisible, he, impervious to the four sturdy walls that held him, the woman and the boy who loved and wanted only to please him."

There is a wonderful Irish music floating through O'Keeffe's prose, bringing it again and again to the verge of poetry. Yet his tales of ordinary rural life in 20th-century Ireland are unsparing and never sentimental. He gets inside the daily lives of villagers and invests obscure tragedies with the kind of profound importance that Joyce gave to the "painful cases" of Dubliners. It's a remarkable achievement for a new writer, who now makes his home in America and has a great future ahead of him.

THE OTHER SHULMAN

By Alan Zweibel. Villard. 304 pages.

In this comic novel by a former writer for Saturday Night Live, the basic story is an inspired treatment of the old joke that inside every fat man is a thin one wildly signaling to get out. Chronically overweight, middle-aged T.O. Shulman figures he has lost enough pounds in his life to make a second person. To his horror, he discovers one day that this "Other Shulman" actually exists and is plotting to destroy him.

There are moments in this book when you fear it's becoming the literary equivalent of an SNL skit that goes on too long. But what saves the day is the author's talent for social satire, which puts into a much broader context the simple plight of the fat guy battling his inner and outer demons. As Alan Zweibel sees it, the modern epidemic of obesity is part of a greater plague of consumer madness threatening to overwhelm us all.

While Shulman tries to shed weight, he must fight for survival on a second front when his old-fashioned stationery store is besieged by a new world of cutthroat competitors from discount chains "where convenience replaced charm," and "where quaint took a back seat to bulk." The real fun of the novel begins when Shulman discovers that his Other has joined forces with the new retail enemy and opened a rival store "with ballpark dimensions" called Stationery Land. No prisoners are taken in the war that soon breaks out between the Shulmans, but there are lots of laughs along the way and quite a few insightful comments on the insanity of our superstore mania.

THE ROAD TO ESMERALDA

By Joy Nicholson. St. Martin's Press. 346 pages.

Based in Los Angeles, Joy Nicholson wrote her first novel about disaffected young people living on the edges of affluent neighborhoods in California. The Tribes of Palos Verdes was a bestseller on the West Coast, but her new novel has a wider appeal. Set in Mexico, The Road to Esmeralda is a timely story about drugs, crime and political corruption in a tropical wilderness, where a seemingly innocent holiday for a young American couple turns into a nightmare of danger and intrigue.

More than a little paranoid about "the target" on their backs after Sept. 11, 2001, Nick and Sarah flee Los Angeles and the imagined threat of suitcase nukes for a supposedly "secret spot, without tourists" in the Mexican jungle. Besides peace, what they are searching for is ... well, they're not sure what it is -- maybe it's just a change of scenery or maybe it's a chance to recharge their stalled lives.

But what they get is a strong dose of the very reality they were hoping to evade back home. Everywhere they go, foreign tourists seem to assault them with anti-American comments. To the "magnificent Euro-women who wanted to spit at his country," Nick offers the excuse that he didn't even vote in the last election, and that "like most Americans he'd been too busy working to pay off his credit card bills."

But the excuses don't help. As he and Sarah soon discover, the same old conflicts that seem to have spoiled their lives in California are taking hold even in the remotest parts of Mexico, where land deals and trade wars and mindless violence have invaded a rural landscape that seems so calm at first glance.

The two American innocents prove to be a bigger target than they imagined, but not for some faceless terrorists with nukes. What they encounter in Mexico is the simple old-fashioned face of common brutality that lies deep in every society's heart.

In that respect, the novel's concerns are very much like those examined in the work of the master to whom Nicholson dedicates her book -- Robert Stone, whose A Flag for Sunrise must have inspired his young admirer to take her fiction south of the border.

Michael Shelden has written biographies of Cyril Connolly, George Orwell and Graham Greene and is a regular contributor to The Daily Telegraph of London.

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