The Famished Road

Reviewed by Ron Charles
Sunday, August 27, 2006


A Novel

By Peter Behrens

Steerforth. 394 pp. $24.95

The Law of Dreams is a fearsome story of such prolonged agony and unquenchable spirit that you can't escape till the final page abandons you to astonished silence. Peter Behrens, a screenwriter who lives in Maine, based this debut novel on his family's history in Ireland, but the private tragedy he describes was common to hundreds of thousands of people during the Great Famine of 1847, and the language he uses constantly soars above that calamity toward the mystery of human struggle.

His young hero, Fergus O'Brien, endures abuses and deprivations that would make a lesser man feral, but there's a native decency in him, a natural grace that renders his decision to survive all the more agonizing. He belongs to a tenant family that subsists for 10 months of every year on the potatoes they grow on a quarter-acre of mountainous land. It's a tough existence, but Fergus prides himself on caring for his mother and sisters, and there's pleasure in the success of his labor: "Potatoes were not made or cut , like the farmer's hay or corn," Behrens writes. "They were lifted , joyfully, the surprise of the world."

We meet Fergus just before a virulent mold spreads across Ireland, withering and blighting the country's crop. Throughout the novel, Behrens stays close to Fergus's experience and knowledge, but everything that Fergus witnesses resonates with the horrible facts of this period. About a third of the 8 million people in Ireland lived almost exclusively on potatoes before the blight struck. Farmers were completely helpless to stop it. Cruel economic policies in England quickly exacerbated the situation, and widespread poverty, starvation and disease followed. Those who survived (and many who were soon to die) took to the roads, desperate for food.

That's the general history most of us know, but in this extraordinary novel Behrens conveys a kind of visceral comprehension of the events that only one who survived them could surpass. Ten weeks into the famine, Fergus's stubborn father still refuses to take his family away, even as their landlord rides around the mountain knocking down shacks and sending families off with a little money. In the first of many unforgettable scenes, Fergus's siblings and parents are finally burned alive in their beds, too weak with hunger even to object. Only Fergus survives, and, in what's considered a great act of charity, he's deposited in a workhouse, where he's immediately stripped, shaved and sprayed with acid to kill the lice. "Paupers lay about the yard," Behrens writes, "soft as gutted trout."

Fergus soon realizes that the workhouse is a trap where he'll either be starved to death or carried off by fever. Over and over, he confronts the frightening powerlessness of his position, but it never loses its ability to shock him -- or us: "Awareness pierces the chest like a spike being driven in. The world doesn't belong to you. Perhaps you belong to the world, but that's another matter." Fergus reaches out everywhere for friendship and love; he's a kind, loyal young man, but he's doomed to outlive his companions, constantly forced to pull pennies from the pockets of freshly dead friends who won't need them anymore. "You had to stay alive," Behrens writes, "every instinct told you. Stay in your life as long as you can. If only to see what would happen. Every breath told you to keep breathing."

When he manages to break out of the workhouse, his ordeal continues: He joins a gang of young thieves, he lives in a whorehouse, and he works on the rails spreading across Ireland almost as fast as the potato blight. All this time, he dreams of a place called America, about which he knows absolutely nothing. Still, a vague sense of its possibility eventually draws him across the Atlantic in one of the novel's most arduous sections.

The Law of Dreams rings with a strange, hard poetry, a mingling of Behrens's rich narrative voice and scraps of startling wisdom that seem to emanate directly from Fergus's mind. Here he is in Liverpool, outside a pub, starving and barefoot, as always:

"Trying to make up his mind, he hopped restlessly from one foot to another, one coin in each fist. The door opened and [a] pack of thick-shouldered men came out, and he caught a tantalizing whiff of the smoky, meaty atmosphere within.

"You could stand outside, bootless and chewing fear like a baby; or take the bold plunge. Offer a coin for a feed and see if they would take it.

"The world, latent; a gun loaded with chance and mistakes."

In the life of this determined young man, Behrens illuminates one of the 19th century's greatest tragedies and the massive migration it launched. A novel that animates the past this vibrantly should make volumes of mere history blush. "Life burns hot," Fergus thinks, and so do these pages. ยท

Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company