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.