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The Salesman

By Joseph O’Connor

Being dubbed ‘the laureate of the rising Irish generation’ could weigh heavily on a young guy’s shoulders. Whom the Gods wish to destroy, they first call promising. The wonder, then, is that on the evidence of The Salesman, his just published third novel, Joe O’Connor seems to have managed to negotiate and withstand the trials and tribulations of easy and early acclaim and success and, despite the pressure of expectation, is actually improving as a writer (of novels, at any rate), to the extent that he has produced his best book to date.

The story concerns Billy Sweeney, a middle-aged satellite dish salesman, a recovering alcoholic with a failed marriage behind him, who had to give up his job teaching English in a secondary school because of his problem with the bottle. Billy’s youngest daughter, Maeve, who was a history student, is now lying in a coma in hospital after being attacked during a robbery in the petrol station where she worked part time. When one of her assailants, Donal Quinn, escapes from custody during the trail, Sweeney takes the law into his own hands, determining to find him and kill him. To reveal any more would be to spoil the reader’s pleasure, but suffice to say that we are taken on an uncomfortable and miraculous journey during which a strange kind of friendship even develops between Sweeney and Quinn.

The book oscillates between recounting Sweeney’s boyhood, marriage and career, and describing his current situation with Maeve and Quinn, and skilfully weaves his past and his present together. It is O’Connor’s essay at the difficult extended first person narrative that all writers want to do, and his unadorned, unpretentious, deceptively simple style shows the influence of two of his more notable heroes and mentors, Raymond Carver and Richard Ford, and partakes of their ability to find profundity in banality.

O’Connor’s iconoclasm and questioning of authority, such a characteristic of his newspaper columns, comes through here, but while doing journalism (usually made to be read once) can adversely affect writing novels (usually made to be read many times), the opinions expressed in this book fit into the overall context and are never obtrusive. Examples include:

Half the patients seemed to have delusions of grandeur, half the

psychiatrists far more worrying delusions of adequacy. Their

approach was to smash what was left of your personality to

minuscule fragments and build it again in their own image. If

you were not a chronic alcoholic already, St Ronan Finn’s, in

those days, would have turned you into one pretty damn quick.

and :

Up front I saw the lawyers from both sides begin to chat to each other.

They all shook hands and laughed, one of them clapped another on the

back. It was as though a game of tennis had just ended. It occurred to

me then that any one of them could have argued any side of the case, it

was just a professional thing to them and no more. They were like

salesmen. That’s all. Nothing more.

A good salesman can sell anything.

The first words of this last sentence form a refrain which echoes throughout the book, other observations being: ‘A good salesman will swear to things he knows not to be true.’; and, ‘But then a good salesman thrives on the changing challenge.’ These snippets, and a moving scene when the mother of one of the convicted criminals pleads with the judge not to send her son to prison, show that O’Connor’s sympathies are universal and that his heart is in the right place.

The Salesman isn’t quite Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter. But give O’Connor time. He is still not as good as he thinks he is, but he is still better than he has ever been, and he is still younger than he knows.

First published in The World of Hibernia

 

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