June 1, 2009
John McGahern: The Dark
Every now and then you come across an author who makes you stop and think, here is someone who will keep me company for a long time to come. I thought this a couple of years ago when I read John McGahern’s Amongst Women. A tremendous book, it made me read around his other work, from which I learned that Amongst Women was, apparently, his best by some way. A perverse form of logic made me interpret this as meaning that his other books were not worth reading, and could only lead to disappointment. I’m glad I finally saw round that.
The Dark (1965) was McGahern’s second novel and, true to the title, it’s as black as you like, at least to begin with. As a reader, I’m rarely much interested in praise that a book is ‘page-turning’, but I really do defy anyone to read the first page of The Dark and not want to rush on.
“Say what you said because I know.”
“I didn’t say anything.”
“Out with it I tell you.”
“I don’t know I said anything.”
“F-U-C-K is what you said, isn’t it? That profane and ugly word. Now do you think you can bluff your way out of it?”
“I didn’t mean, it just came out.”
“The filth that’s in your head came out, you mean. And I’m going to teach you a lesson for once. You’d think there’d be some respect for your dead mother left in the house. And trying to sing dumb – as if butter wouldn’t melt. But I’ll teach you.”
He took the heavy leather strap he used for sharpening his razor from its nail on the side of the press.
Yes, we’re in ‘miserable bloody Ireland’ territory, a place well explored in literature, but rarely so compellingly as in McGahern’s fiction. Here he gives us a young man trying to work out his future – to join his father’s farm, or seek a vocation in the priesthood, or even go to England. All this is not entirely his decision as he lives, like his sisters, under the dead hand of Mahoney, a great literary monster-father (“God, O God, such a misfortunate crowd of ignoramuses to be saddled with” – but “don’t you know I love you no matter what happens?”). The son gets a scholarship (“there wasn’t much rejoicing”) which gives Mahoney the opportunity to adopt his best stance: the bully-as-victim or, as we might now say, passive-aggressive.
“Take it if you want and don’t take it if you don’t want. It’s your decision. I won’t have you blaming me for the rest of your life that the one chance you did get that I stood in your way. Do what you want to do.”
He knew Mahoney wanted him to stay from school and work in the fields.
“I’ll take it,” he said in spite of what he knew.
“Take it so and may it choke you but I’ll not have you saying in after years that I kept you from it.”
There is something of a problem here too, however, for the reader as well as the character. Did McGahern really need to tell us twice that the son knows Mahoney wants him to stay and work in the fields? For a short book, with admirably brisk movement through its story, there is a lot of detail which the reader could probably work out unaided. There is also an odd switching between first, third and even second person in the narrative for no obvious reason (the story is always from the son’s viewpoint).
At the same time his willingness to speak directly does McGahern credit when tackling the book’s obvious themes, of how the weight of Catholic guilt can sink a fledgling life, and of great directness in the boy’s sexual development (regular scenes of masturbation are depicted in detail and with what can only be described as relish). I can guess that The Dark would have been controversial in Ireland when first published.
Perhaps the book’s greatest weakness, however, is that Mahoney, by far the most interesting character, disappears for half its length. The son’s struggles alone, and life with a priest, while engaging, are not quite enough to sustain the same level of interest. Perhaps McGahern recognised this, because with Amongst Women he would return to a Mahoney-like figure – this time called Moran – who would remain centre stage for the entire book.
All this makes me sound rather lukewarm toward The Dark, which is not entirely fair. It’s a short read, and I gobbled it up hungrily. Despite its unevenness and the curious choices in the narrative, it’s compelling, assured and affecting. “But why had things to happen as they did,” wonders the son early on, “why could there not be some happiness, it’d be as easy.” But who needs happiness, when glumness can be so invigorating?