Dermot Bolger’s writing comes with ringing endorsements from Irish critics, as well as the venerable novelist Colm Toibin, who views him as one of the preeminent writers that the nation has to offer. His work, over two decades, has ranged over literary forms — he is a published novelist, dramatist, and poet. In this novel, his first to be published in the United States (it was first published in Britain in 1990), he looks at 1980s Ireland, one which is consistently being referred to as of late. As the Irish economy enters a downturn, the likes of which have not been seen since 1983, pundits are debating how the nation’s character may change.
The novel evokes a time in Irish history when material wealth and a prosperous international image were inconceivable. The Ireland of The Journey Home is resolutely working class, bland, focused on the traditional pursuits of numbing the senses through alcohol, coping with the drudgery of dead-end jobs with an almost nihilistic escapism. Set primarily in Dublin city in the 1980s, the novel focuses on Hano, a first generation urbanite, and his relationship with friends Shay and Katie. They are misfits, disparate characters who find each other randomly. Their friendship is torn apart by desperate criminal schemes and the fragility and lostness of their psyche. It is an Ireland of declining church control, of crumbling values, in which the seeds are sown for the economic boom of the Celtic Tiger era of the late ’90s/’00s.
The dark side of this era is epitomized by the loan shark/local businessman/politician Pascal Plunkett, a cruel individual who exploits the poor of his community through usery and intimidation. He is adamant that he and his kind invented Ireland. Interestingly, the vestiges of this linger on in Irish politics still. Prominent figures, including prime minister Bertie Ahern, have been investigated for tax evasion and supposed brown envelope payments from building contractors. Bolger mines this aspect of Irish society and encapsulates this peculiar form of Irish villainy — Plunkett is by turns callous and charming, a local Iago: “Make all the money thou canst”.
Bolger, a native Dubliner, is very knowledgeable about this period, and, when writing about the generational conflict of the time, he is intense, emotional, and writes with pathos. The interaction between Hano and his rurally born and raised father is perfectly measured; Bolger captures the intense, stiff monosyllabic tension — a generation gap that is worlds apart. There is a nostalgia for a rural past, pining after a more traditional Utopian Ireland, removed from the grime and dirt of urban working class life. Bolger pinpoints the declining influence of the Catholic church also. In the narrative, it is almost totally absent. The 1980s sowed the seeds for a more secular Ireland in the 1990s — the novel’s main characters have no interest in religion, and are more likely to seek a glimpse of transcendence in drugs and alcohol than in God.
However, there is something ostentatious about Bolger’s writing at times. His flitting between past and present in the action of the novel is a little forced, feeling as if he is blatantly withholding some massive plot twist, like a magician hyping up an impending trick. The occasional switching to a second person narration doesn’t work either — the tone is too mawkish and personal to have any resonance, and the alternation between the first and third person in the main narrative is a little pointless. Unfortunately, there is no notable difference between the tones of both, and thus it feels a bit tokenistic. His dialogue can be a bit hammy at times, the interaction between Katie and Hano particularly feeling like a consistent exchange of speeches as opposed to conversation. Feeling like a point has to be made at every turn, Bolger exhausts his reserves of pathos and comes off as excessive and, worse, draining.
All the same, The Journey Home is interesting on a social realist level. It does evoke a hopelessness apt for the 1980s in Ireland, a transitional time of little economic prosperity, widespread unemployment, and slowly encroaching modernity. He writes with real emotion about the changing structure of feeling in the country of the time. Unfortunately, he reaches too far, confusing a desire to be complex with doing justice to his subject.