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Articles and Reviews: BOOKS
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.
approach was to smash what was left of your personality
minuscule fragments and build it again in their
own image. If
you were not a chronic alcoholic already, St Ronan
those days, would have turned you into one pretty
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