When a novel nearing 500 pages unfolds leisurely, and when despite many events and lively conversations it adds up to not much more than life’s passage, does this reflect the author’s skill at recording daily happenings, or a lack of will to transform the mundane or the mortal into a work of escapist art? A reader may wonder, throughout this atmospheric novel set in a 2006 Irish village, a picturesque place facing the Atlantic, welcoming tourists and settlers from across the world.
Dermot Healy’s breakthrough work of fiction, A Goat’s Song (1995) took that title literally: translating “tragedy” to convey what for me predominated as a maudlin tale of a dissolute playwright’s troubles half set in Troubles-era Belfast, half in his retreat to a fisherman’s tensions set on the Belmullet peninsula of County Mayo. A third of the novel succeeded, but the rest dithered.
Yet, friends of mine praised this novel as one of his and their best. So, I decided to try Healy again. To Healy’s credit, Long Time, No See changes the tone considerably. Hints of countryman Samuel Beckett’s malaise linger as death approaches for two semi-antagonists, whose disputes spark the plot. The Blackbird (most characters go by nicknames, and two share the same first and last name, a situation this reviewer knows well from his own Irish familial patterns) and the narrator’s grand-uncle Joejoe square off over who shot a bullet through the Bird’s window. Against a vividly rendered ocean squall that begins this telling, it’s a promising and evocative series of scenes. Then, the novel downshifts.
It’s told by a young man. Having just completed his examinations ending secondary school, he is known to the inhabitants of Templeboy as Mister Psyche. Healy offers no explanations for any native character’s name. This reflects the tendency of those in Ireland to use familiar titles or allusions that an outsider cannot explain. However, many outsiders enter this small hamlet, attracted by the sea. The combination of titles and the lack of geographical specificity suggest a mythic, timeless air.
Miss Jilly, the last elderly stalwart of a vanished era among those owning “the Protestant earth”, possesses a manor in sore need of repair. Young hippies and a pair of Serbian sailors passing through help Psyche and his father; the most detailed section in this long novel tells how a very dirty chimney is cleaned. That may recommend it to those wanting a respite from more frenetic fiction. It may infuriate those who dislike the punctuation or its lack, and the considerable amounts of lassitude and lingering.
Healy forces a reader to slow down. He favors an incremental accrual of words. He stacks them up to divide dialogue into its fragments. He breaks up conversation to direct our attention to how it paces the action in hesitant, easy, or lamenting fashion. Psyche builds dry walls out of stones from an old monastery barn, and this labor mirrors the condition of the villagers as they try to restore their defenses against the wind and the wet, and the structure Healy selects as he stretches out his elongated, suspended tone.
Over hundreds of pages, the dispute between the Bird and Joejoe sputters out. The revelation of what the two have been bickering about lacks a big payoff. Surely Healy for his craft intends this subtle open-endedness, but the ambiguity may not please a reader desiring a novel filled with more action. The novel for all of its immersion into reality lived gradually insists on a dreamlike unease at it all.
For example, the fractured dialogue intersperses with snippets from Psyche’s perspective. Visiting an unnamed town resembling the author’s own Sligo residence, Psyche mentally detaches himself from the passersby.
“Paper blew. The people walking through looked very alone, and strangely familiar. I tried to walk by in their place. I found I was down by the monastery lighting a fire for breakfast. I made porridge and brought some out for the crows. I climbed the round steps and looked out of that V-shaped window. Underneath the souls in coats strolled in a medley. Even as they talked together, squinting to the person on their left, or right, they looked like animals entering new territory; and those who knew the place, and walked ahead through the dark with new confidence, were more alone than the strangers. I waved, but nobody saw me.”
This drift along consciousness to what may lie ahead in loneliness is shared by those 50 years older. Both Joejoe and the Bird are haunted by silent visitors they alone attest to seeing if not hearing. The Blackbird confides: “Do you know what it is—you stay at a certain age in your head. Going back I met the man coming, the man I was then. Everywhere I went I met myself, and other forgotten voices kept breaking in. I do not want those voices. I want silence.”
We never learn what exactly bothers either old man, and only hints of what haunts Psyche: the death of a friend in a car crash. Healy chooses to leave much blank even as he fills many pages.
The results may surprise audiences anticipating a lighthearted visit to a coastal resort. They defy any facile nod to cheeriness. This novel turns inward, where the shadows hover over even the sunniest of days for those who endure in an island constantly threatened by rain, salt, and slurry.