March 23, 2007

Brian Moore: The Luck of Ginger Coffey

Posted in Moore Brian at 9:52 pm by John Self

Brian Moore, who died in 1999, was one of the few twentieth century novelists from Northern Ireland of real stature. He is sometimes referred to, inaccurately, as under-rated (in fact he’s highly rated, but woefully under-read); and as a writer’s writer, which is only true if the writer in question is Graham Greene, who considered Moore “my favourite living novelist.” In fact Moore is a reader’s writer through and through, marrying a real skill at storytelling with social insight and a giddy diversity of subject matter. All he needs is the readers.

The Luck of Ginger Coffey (1960) is saddled with a bulky title but turns out to be one of the very finest among the dozen or so books of his that I’ve read. To begin with, it is far lighter in tone than much of his work, from his earlier personality-driven pieces like The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne or I am Mary Dunne to the later taut Booker-shortlisted thrillers The Colour of Blood and Lies of Silence.

The humour comes from the central figure of James Francis ‘Ginger’ Coffey, a fool and dreamer who has emigrated from Ireland to Canada (as Moore himself did in 1948). He tries to scam his way into jobs, he daydreams of a better life, he tries the patience of his long-suffering wife Veronica and daughter Paulie. When he loses a job:

[h]e economized by giving up their flat and moving to this cheap dump of a duplex. But he did not tell Veronica. For two weeks he sat in his rented office, searching the want ads in the newspapers, dodging out from time-to-time for half-hearted enquiries about jobs. But the trouble was, what his trouble always was. He had not finished his BA, the army years were wasted years, the jobs at Kylemore and Coomb-Na-Baun had not qualified him for any others. In six months he would be forty.

It’s difficult to explain what makes this novel so appealing. There is no fancy prose, no outlandish occurrences, no sense of boundaries stretched. And yet this is what makes it a success: it is an intimate story, perfectly done. It is full and satisfying by the end, and the only flaws I could detect were a couple of unsurprising plot developments. It is entertaining and page-turning but also rich in character: not only the central figures (and if there was any justice, the term ‘Walter Mitty character’ would by now have its own subset, the ‘Ginger Coffey character’) but the teeming hordes of minor figures who remain memorable despite their brief appearances. And Moore is adept at turning the mood to intense poignancy, such as when Coffey learns how much his fourteen year old daughter has grown up, when she threatens to leave home to live with her boyfriend:

He felt dizzy. He backed away from the door and sat down in the first chair his hand touched. In his mind, a child’s voice spoke: Do you like big elephants best of all, or do you like horses best of all? He remembered her asking that. Or: why do my dolly’s eyes stay open when she sleeps? Conversations which ended with him telling her something she did not know. Now, she had told him something he did not know.

I should add that it’s possible I got a further layer of pleasure from the feel of the Irish vernacular – not just the words, but the way they are delivered – which others might not share.  Nonetheless, with The Luck of Ginger Coffey, Brian Moore has proved again his protean brilliance, and shown that a practically unknown book by a virtually unheard-of novelist can hit harder than the best loved and most well known. Only around a third of his twenty novels are in print in the UK, which in a better world would be close to a national scandal. Get them while they’re here.

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14 Comments »

  1. Rhys said,

    Hello John, I really enjoyed Lies of Silence and remember it as a terrifying read! There’s another disturbing one about a man who gets hit by a motor boat.

  2. John Self said,

    Hi Rhys, thanks for dropping by. I think the motor boat one might be Cold Heaven, which I have on its way from an Amazon Marketplace seller as we speak. I think because his late books were of the thriller variety with little to spare on the bones of the prose, I was all the more surprised by the humour and heart in The Luck of Ginger Coffey.

  3. Rhys said,

    Hello John, It is Cold Heaven I was thinking about so thanks for solving that riddle. I want to read it again now because I can remember not quite getting it and I want to find out what was puzzling me.

  4. [...] Hearne’s viewpoint, but also that of James Madden, who – like an embryonic Ginger Coffey in Moore’s third novel – left Northern Ireland for north America, and who failed too in a less comic way than Coffey. As a [...]

  5. JS: I just made a comment on Mookse and Gripes and then wandered back over here. You got me started on Brian Moore. I am halfway through The Doctor’s Wife. The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne just arrived (NYRB strikes again), and The Luck of Ginger Coffey is on its way. So thanks for the nudge.

  6. John Self said,

    You’re welcome Guy, and I’m pleased you’ve been enjoying him. The Doctor’s Wife is one of his best, I think, as are the other two you mentioned. All quite different, but each exhibiting Moore’s greatest skill, which is to portray an individual at a moment of crisis.

  7. I went a bit mad this morning, lost control and ordered a few more. I am avoiding the titles that sound a bit dodgier (miracles/visions of virgins etc) and sticking with the moral dilemmas.

  8. John Self said,

    Some of the later thrillers are good too, Guy: Lies of Silence and The Colour of Blood (both shortlisted for the Booker Prize), though The Statement (his penultimate novel) less so.

    I think it’s just three of his novels I haven’t read, which would be the visions and miracles ones (I think): The Mangan Inheritance (shortly to be reissued by NYRB also), The Great Victorian Collection and Cold Heaven. Oh and The Temptation of Eileen Hughes also. Of the ones I have read, I’d recommend them all though Fergus is a bit weaker than most.

  9. I did not get The GV Collection or Cold Heaven. Amazon has a number of reviews which help and is also, I think, indicative of the fans out there. It’s rare to come across a fair number of reviews for OOP books. Will check out the thrillers too.

    Have you noticed how many covers there are out there?

    I didn’t know that NYRB is going to reprint the Mangan Collection. I always keep an eye peeled for anything they republish. If I haven’t heard of it, I think they know something that I don’t. Have you read Hard Rain Falling? It was just republished this year and I’m calling it one of the great American novels of the 20th. It’s that good.

    Anyway, I finished The Doctor’s Wife last night. Couldn’t put it down. I’ll link when I’ve written the review. Just learned how to do the backtrack feature.

  10. The Doctor’s Wife by Brian Moore…

    “It’s books, of course, that you got all your notions from. Not from real life. All those novels and trash that’s up there in your room at home. I wonder sometimes if some if these authors who write that stuff shouldn’t be prose…

  11. [...] marriage. I’m still pondering why this book is so powerful. Moore is highly recommended by John Self at Asylum. I meant to read another Moore novel in 2010 and didn’t. I’ll have to correct that in [...]

  12. Colette Jones said,

    I posted the following response to this review on The Moore the Merrier, but thought I’d copy it here as I think I’m the only one looking at that still.

    I finally got round to this one. I agree, it’s easy to read and excellent. Suffering J, I didn’t half feel sorry for Ginger through some of this (although in the first half or so, I didn’t find him one to sympathise with).

    There was some likeness to Judith Hearne – his “This is the church…” habit and also spotting himself in the mirror reminded me of Judith’s fixation with the tiny buttons on her shoes.

  13. John Self said,

    Thanks Colette. It’s so long since I read this book – actually the first Moore I reviewed here, though it’s his third novel – that I can’t recall many of the details, though your finding of likenesses to Judith Hearne is not surprising. The central character of his second novel The Feast of Lupercal (well worth reading) also shows similar qualities. Moore took a while to move away from his particular tropes of characterisation and indeed from his stock conceit of a central character in a moment of crisis, who was looking for something to replace religion in a slowly modernising Northern Ireland.

  14. Una said,

    Have read them all, some about three times. Judith Hearne is iconic, The Great Victorian Collection is a brilliant novel, totally descriptive in detail, the reader can imagine those pieces of Victoriana right there! Answer from Limbo made me cry buckets.


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