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Yuk of the Irish

By Nuala O'Faolain
whose most recent book is the memoir
Monday, October 11, 2004; Page C04


By Paul Murray

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Random House. 424 pp. $24.95

The senior writers on the Irish scene cover among them a great many bases. John McGahern writes by now with a Vermeer-like lucidity; Edna O'Brien has of late invented fictions of an almost hallucinatory intensity based on events in Irish life; John Banville finds more and more eloquence in dandyism. But even he, though he's witty, is not funny. Comedy -- excluding grotesque comedy that breaks your heart -- is not something the Irish do.

Except, perhaps, when they're poised halfway between Ireland and England -- as Oscar Wilde was, at least in terms of geography, and as is the hero of Paul Murray's debut novel, "An Evening of Long Goodbyes." In Charles Hythloday's case it is not that he lives anywhere other than in a decaying mansion on the most exclusive stretch of Dublin's coastline but that he would be more recognizable in an English class structure than an Irish one -- or in some novel of the Anglo-Irish tradition where the frail son of the Big House falls in with "characters" in situations that astonish and amuse him but which to ordinary Irish people are life. And indeed Charles's home, Amaurot -- where there are Bosnian refugees hidden in the Folly, a building on the grounds, and an absent mother is drying out in a clinic, and his hysterical, would-be-actress sister has introduced a plebeian boyfriend from Dublin's lower depths -- is in its chaos, if not its details, a descendant of just such a novel, "Castle Rackrent," by Maria Edgeworth.

It's a tricky enough stance to get right -- the Candide one. The innocent Charles threatens to be as tedious as anyone who has eccentricities instead of a personality. His affectlessness is suggested by his oddities in a way that has become conventional: his expertise in the biographical details of Gene Tierney, the middle-class girl from Connecticut who was a great beauty of the black-and-white screen; his weakness for the girls in his sister Bel's school yearbooks, especially the exquisite Laura; his domestic helplessness; his ignorance of how anything works in the modern world or even of how modern people talk; the confusion of his feelings for his monstrous mother, his dead father -- an inventor of cosmetics -- and his difficult sister; and, when it turns out that the family money has disappeared, his antic plot to blow up the Folly and, with the aid of the mailman, fake his own death.

But it is early yet in this very long book, and character and setting are no more than points of departure for comic cadenzas -- some of which are wonderful. When Charles is concussed, for example, by masonry falling from the Folly, he spends a happy time in the hospital "under the impression that I was residing in Chile, in a charming period hacienda, with the poet and Nobel laureate W.B. Yeats." He and Yeats have long talks about such things as how terrible it is having builders in to restore their houses -- the builders Charles tries to employ have keen social consciences and are forever departing on humanitarian missions, and Yeats's have "tiny, ailing farms and any time they felt like a break they'd tell me they had to go and resuscitate them." But often Charles has to steer Yeats away from reciting "one of those slouches-toward-Bethlehem-gong-tormented-sea things, that no one can understand," or from talking about mask theory. Not that mask theory, along with Chekhov's theory in "The Cherry Orchard" of how to live in the present and many another literary theory, doesn't turn out to be a strand in as complex a cat's cradle of erudite references as it ever pleased a graduate of an English department to construct.

As the book progresses it becomes clear that Paul Murray, though this is his first novel and he is not yet 30, can do almost anything. Charles goes to live with the hulk -- formerly Bel's boyfriend -- in a surreal Dublin slum and gets his first ever job as a yule log finisher in an equally surreal bakery where his fellow workers are oppressed, visa-less Latvians. Subplots to do with the world of heroin addicts, greyhound racing (An Evening of Long Goodbyes is the name of a particularly needy dog), subsidized drama therapy for the disabled, the rhetoric of telecommunications PR and the empty heart of a one-legged Balkan temptress (to name but a few) give Murray the opportunity for set pieces that are often of real emotional power -- and for jokes and digressions. Did you know, for example, that (except for his inauguration) JFK last wore a hat when he was out with Gene Tierney? Did you ever think that when Ireland's current economic boom is over, "all anyone will have done is eaten a lot of expensive cheese"?

But no -- there'll be this exuberant satire on contemporary Ireland to show for it, too: a satire softened at the point of impact by justified delight in its own cleverness. Often, the remark that you look forward to so-and-so's next book is a way of implying that the current one isn't very good. But this one is. It's just that there's also the pleasure -- the one pleasure the big, established writers cannot give -- of wanting to see which of Murray's talents he'll choose to take forward.

Patrick Anderson is away.

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