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Sudden Times

By Dermot Healy

If, as was suggested sometime ago by the esteemed film critic of the Oisish Sunday Times, Gerry McCarthy, in his Film Ireland review of Peter Weir’s The Truman Show, with reference to Kafka and Pynchon, Hitchcock and Cronenberg, that paranoia was the defining condition of the twentieth century, then Dermot Healy is up there with the best of them, and is taking this most terrifying but potentially fruitful of mental states into the new century as well. For if Pat McCabe’s The Butcher Boy is more usefully read as being about the disjunction between what is going on in a boy’s head and what is going on around him, rather than about what it was like to grow up in Monaghan in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, and if Eoin McNamee’s Resurrection Man is better appreciated as being about them knowing more than us, and being out to get us too, by trying to rule us through fear, rather than interpreted as a literary comment on The Northern Situation, then Sudden Times is about a person seeking refuge in what society denominates as madness - a la R. D. Laing and Thomas Szasz - because their experience is too traumatic to face, rather than about the condition of Irish emigrants working on London building sites.

 

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Ollie Ewing has returned to his native Sligo from London and is ‘lying low’, living at the top of a rundown house with some art students at the Regional Technical College. By day, he works as a trolley-boy and shelf-stacker in a local supermarket, by night, he tries to dodge his recurrent nightmares. These centre almost exclusively, and hardly surprisingly, on the scarifying events which took place when he was a navvy in London, living in a mobile home on a vacant lot with his best friend from the old country, Marty.

The intimacy you once had with someone is hard to forget at the beginning. It returns stronger than ever before.

I would say I was not right in the head.

That’s right.

High all the time on sorrow, and low because of what you

think is being said about you.

...

It all came back. The worst thing is I turned religious. That can happen the best of us. I walked to the window in the hostel and looked out at the monastery that had not been inhabited in over two centuries. In my head I heard beautiful psalms. This need of mine for God is a travesty. The traveller wanted to speak of Aristotle and I wanted to speak of St Paul. You’ll get that. You push too much onto someone.

Marty wound up murdered through his involvement as a foot-soldier with a sinister protection racket run by the devious and ruthless Silver John and Scots Bob, who are ostensibly site foremen. Ollie found Marty dead in the back of his lorry, after the later had gone off on a ‘business’ trip to Manchester. At least, he believes it was Marty, since the fact that the body was doused with acid made identification difficult. Then Ollie’s brother, Redmond, died of severe burns after a fight with Scots bob. The whole thing climaxes in a count room cross-examination, which demonstrates the prejudices and power structures inscribed in legal rhetoric and practices, and has left Ollie even more disturbed.

The fact that we get the second half of the story first, back in Sligo, before moving back in time to events in London for the second half of the book, invites immediate re-reading, as did Healy’s previous novel, A Goat’s Song. It’s a clever narrative strategy, as it withholds explanatory information until its revelation will have most impact, and makes earlier sections clearer second time around.

With his central acting role in Nicola Bruce’s extraordinary film of Irish emigrant life in London, I Could Read The Sky, and his recent direction of Samuel Beckett’s play Footfalls, to say nothing of his founding and long-time editing of Force 10 magazine, there would seem to be no end to Healy’s talents and energy. Let’s hope he keeps up this level of creativity, for Sudden Times is a worthy addition to an already impressive body of work.

First published in Books Ireland


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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