WHAT HAS DISTINGUISHED Brian Moore, since the days of The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne , and The Luck of Giner Coffey , is the fact that he is a "Writer," one with a capital "W," in a league with, say, Graham Greene. In fact, it's useful, in approaching Moore, to remember Greene's own system of differentiating between his heavyweight work and his "entertainments." Moore's latest novel The Mangan Inheritance , is an "entertainment," most of which I found highly entertaining. Most, but not all.
It has every Irish cliche -- guilt, mist, red hair, drunkenness, madness, poetry, lust, ruined castles, violence, a fair amount of sex and some incest, the kind of thing the Irish Censorship Board used to save us from in the days when Moore was a young Irish exile writing short stories in Canada.
In the novel, Moore writes in the phantasmagorical tradition of the old Irish "Seanachai" or storytellers who used to travel about the country weaving tales -- usually for their night's drink and lodgings -- in which the supernatural and the commonplace, fantasy and fact were all tools for the telling.
It is a genre which suits Moore, because sometimes when he is writing in the grip of that fundamental pessimism of the Irish, particularly of the Irish artist, he strikes me as finding it easier to tell an unusual story, than to empathize with his characters.
The Mangan Inheritance is about Jamie Mangan, who lives in Canada and makes discoveries in his father's papers that lead him to believe himself a descendant of the poet James Clarence Mangan. Moore makes him Europe's first poete maudit though Mangan was in fact only one in a long line of destroyed, drunken, disillusioned Irish talents produced by a nation on the run for several hundred years.
Mangan was supposed to be childless. However, Jamie, himself a man of poetry but no position, or even certitude of identity, discovers he has such an incredible physical resemblance to what is supposed to be a daguerreotype of the Irish poet, that he feels he has acquired a doppelganger . At a moment of personal crisis, he also acquires an inheritance and comes to Ireland to find his missing links.
The book's central theme is a highly ingenious idea, and Moore handles the research into poor James Clarence extremely well. This part of the book might be termed an Irish Roots .
In his rummagings into the past, Jamie digs up some very hard roots indeed. Hard to take, in fact. He encounters 18-year-old Kathleen, for instance, possibly a cousin, a beautiful redhead who doesn't wash but is nevertheless an object of Mangan's powerful lust. Living with her in a rented caravan is her dwarfish brother Con, who is a thief, a drunk and a homosexual to boot. Nearby live other Mangans -- an aunt who is subject to "mental troubles," and a cousin, Dinny, who has left his desk job at a bank to work as a laborer. His sister Maeve is a lay sister in England in Mysterious Circumstances. You know, a typical Irish scene -- rosary beads, family with the Sacred Heart Lamp shining in the kitchen, but with the motto underneath altered slightly to read "The Family that lays together, stays together."
It doesn't in this case, however, and the story unfolds almost like a film script, as it might have been written in a partnership between Charles Addams and Monty Python with acknowledgements to Darby O'Gill and the Little People.
The unfolding Mangan and mysterious member of the family -- an implausible old maimed man living hermit-like in improbable surroundings.
Mangan is revolted by what he discovers. A sort of bardic contest ensues, although Moore gives less weight than he should to the encounter. We might have been given some examples of the hermit's poetry, for instance, but Moore's writing seems to tire here. There are occasional opportunities for the kind of nit-picking reviewers are paid for -- "Skull" for the Cork town of "Schull" and so on.
In the end Jamie Mangan parts badly and inconclusively from Ireland, having been beaten up in the process, to go back to Canada and confront yet another family tragedy.
But Moore is melodious, and, as I indicated earlier, I am an admirer of his. He is a major writer of our time, and if one approaches The Mangan Inheritance as a kind of modern version of The Crock of Gold with sex, one will know what to expect.