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John McGahern, The Barracks

For the past several Marches I've made it a tradition to read one or two Irish novels. At first I thought I'd work my way through all of Joyce's works - two years ago I read and loved Dubliners, even if it required a history primer near at hand to catch all of the period references, but last year I slogged through Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which definitely had moments of greatness but overall seemed too self-consciously 'artistic' for my tastes. Though Dubliners initially gave me enough courage to consider tackling Ulysses, after reading Portrait (which isn't generally considered a "difficult" work) I decided to step away from Joyce and move on to other worthy Irish writers.

My next stop was John McGahern. I hadn't ever heard of him until he passed away several years ago, but what I read of him at that time reminded me quite a bit of William Trevor, one of my very favorite writers. I figured if McGahern was anything at all like Trevor I'd really enjoy reading him. Last week I finished reading McGahern's first novel, The Barracks, which I very much enjoyed. It's a good novel, or, to qualify that somewhat, it's a very good first novel. The story itself - set in rural West Ireland just after WWII, when the country was still adjusting to self-determination after several decades of independence - is a sensitive, emotionally gripping one. The story revolves around Reegan, a police sargeant and former partisan who finds himself thoroughly disillusioned that his country's fight for freedom merely exchanged the oppression of a colonial occupation for the oppression of a self-imposed bureaucracy, and his wife Elizabeth, who's struggling with both breast cancer and a failing quest for self-fulfillment. Reegan and Elizabeth live together but never truly connect - she never really senses how much he's chafing under the constraints of the police force or appreciates his dream of quitting the force and buying a farm, and he's so preoccupied with scraping together enough money to pursue his dream that he never realizes how much pain she's in. Neither of which is simply a case of either being oblivious to the other, however - they never really make the effort to reach out to each other, and instead settle for wallowing in self-absorption.

The passages written from Reegan's perspective are, to me, more effective than those of Elizabeth. Maybe that's just the guy in me talking, but I really connected with his frustrations. I think one reason that his passages worked best is that they were delivered via action and dialogue - working his potato patch on company time and getting caught by his snooping boss and having to cringe his way through saying all the "right" things to appease him, or enduring the endless but quite funny banter of his patrolmen. In contrast, the passages written from Elizabeth's perspective were largely internal dialogue - often long-winded, sometimes abstract and overall relentlessly grim. (Which is not to say many of them weren't extremely powerful - in particular, I won't be forgetting any time soon the tormented scene in which she wakes up in excruciating pain after tumor surgery.) I suppose the internal dialogue makes sense, because Elizabeth is, even more so than Reegan, very much alone. I just felt that her passages needed to be tightened up a bit to be as effective as they could have been.

Despite my preference for Reegan's passages, however, for some reason one paragraph of Elizabeth's has really stuck with me, weeks after first reading it. To put the following in context, Elizabeth had lived in London for twenty years, where she worked as a nurse before returning to her home village to care for her dying mother, the same village where she met Reegan (who was stationed there) and where most of the novel takes place.

Elizabeth knew it would suit them if she stayed, stayed to nurse her mother as she crippled, the mother who had seemed so old when she died three months ago that not even her children wept at the funeral, she meant as little as a flower that has withered in a vase behind curtains through the winter when it's discovered and lifted out a day in spring.

A vased flower forgotten behind curtains and withering to nothingness - what a magnificent image and devastating metaphor that is, all economically delivered with an minimum of words. Maybe the reason I like that paragraph so much is that it hints at how much more powerful this book might have been had all of Elizabeth's passages been written with such economy and restraint.

Overall, as I said earlier, The Barracks is a very good first novel. Anyone reading the book back in 1963 would have clearly recognized the young McGahern as a writer of considerable talent who had a bright future ahead of him, an assessment which would be borne out by the acclaim with which his later novels were received. I know I'll be reading more McGahern in the future - I've already set my sights on Amongst Women.

March 25, 2008 in Books | Permalink


Ah, James Joyce. I have a peculiar (or maybe it's not so peculiar?) love-hate relationship with him. I loved Dubliners, but like you, I found Portrait to be quite the slog. Weirdly enough, I didn't find Ulysses to be as difficult as Portrait. If you do tackle Ulysses, be sure to read the Odyssey first; that'll make for much smoother sailing. I was confused during much of Ulysses, but I actually had moments where I thought, "Hey, I get it!" It only gets truly brutal at the end, where sentences go on for pages.

Finnegans Wake? Don't bother. I read 100 pages of it, then lost interest.

I'll have to check out The Barracks, though. It sounds great.

Posted by: Brandon at Mar 27, 2008 12:50:37 PM