“This novel was written very close to the bone of my family’s life,” Peter Behrens told fans at Politics and Prose Bookstore on Thursday night. He was in town to promote “The O’Briens,” a sweeping sequel to his award-winning debut, “The Law of Dreams” (2006). That earlier book told the grueling story of an Irish ancestor who barely survived the potato famine and managed to escape to America in the mid-19th century. His new sequel is based on the life of a Behrens’s grandfather, who died in 1971. That meant writing a story that hewed to the facts the family could remember. “There were 17 cousins around who knew this guy, which was a little intimidating.”
“Through force of determination he became a pretty powerful figure, running gangs of men,” cutting wood in the Canadian forests. But despite his family’s fascinating history, Behrens said his relatives rarely told anecdotes of the old days or the mother country.
“My grandfather was one of those guys who wasn’t interested in the least in being Irish,” Behrens said. “The past was a place of darkness and poverty. We were trained to think of ourselves as Canadians. And what that meant is that you were living in the present.”
Tall and lanky in a pair of jeans and a tweed jacket, Behrens read from “The O’Briens” about his grandparents’ wedding night on a train. “It’s weird to read about your grandparents having sex,” he said, “but on the way over here, I thought, what the heck. I just hope they’re okay with it.”
Even if they weren’t, the patrons at Politics and Prose were. Behrens has a captivating delivery, intense and halting, dropping into his characters’ voices in ominous whispers. (He was a scriptwriter for years in Hollywood before moving to Maine, where he lives now.) “Her skin felt hungry to be touched,” he read. “He pushed her onto the soft bed, and they didn’t leave their compartment for 800 miles.”
Look for a review of “The O’Briens” in The Post on St. Patrick’s Day.