IN ONE OF NEIL JORDAN'S stories, a middle-aged housewife becomes aware of "The animal memory of a home more vibrant, more total than this. The origin-track; the ache for aliveness." That "ache for aliveness" dominates the lives of Jordan's characters. They suffer from boredom, frustration and spiritual numbness in a comtemporary Ireland that seems far removed from the romantic, myth-drenched land of the Irish Revival. Jordan's book, Night in Tunisia (which originally appeared in Ireland in 1976 when the author was 25), is more in the tradition of Joyce's Dubliners, the hard-nosed classic about the spiritual paralysis of modern life. Jordan's stories center on what Joyce called "the soul's incurable loneliness," and his characters, like Joyce's, are "vanquished in spirit."
But it is the sea, rather than the city, that provides the backdrop for Jordan's fiction. His stories are almost all set in summer towns on the beach, where the ocean, "breathing outside like a woman," is a continuous reminder of the emotional vitality that is missing from the lives of his characters. The tension between "that boredom which is a condition of life itself" and the ocean's "irrational ceaseless surging" gives these stories an insistent sexuality. "Seduction" ends with two adolescent boys about to copulate in the foam. The young narrator of "A Love" reminisces about his affair with an older woman and the nights they spent on an "old creaking bed that looked out on the sea." The bored housewife of "Skin" decides "to risk a paddle" in the ocean. With her skirt tucked up, she wades in the water and feels that the ocean "touched her core." "This is what the sea means," she thinks, "what it all must mean."
"But," Jordan tells us, "she was wrong." The sea is not the answer. The ocean -- "the act of faith in water" -- does not solve anyone's problems. Its massive vitality merely serves as a contrast to the arid "mental landscape" that Jordan's characters inhabit.
The people in Night in Tunisia are often "suspended," suffering a kind of detachment from the world and, more significantly, from themselves; one woman at a party becomes convinced that she has lost her soul; in "A Love," a crowd of people in front of a television store on the day of De Valera's funeral "were staring at a white screen, staring at the death being celebrated behind them"; in "Last Rites," a young laborer kills himself, after first meditating on his attraction to the "deadness" and "imperviousness to feeling" of mud and stone. Throughout these stories, "the inner secret life" of Jordan's characters seems threatened with annihilation.
When the 14-year-old boy of the title hears a recording of Charlie Parker playing "Night in Tunisia," he feels the music "dispelling the world around him" and imagines "a landscape of small hills, stretching to infinity, suffused in a yellow light that seemed to lap like water." Jordan's fictional world is full of shadows; they are everywhere and seem to suggest the inner darkness that troubles his characters. Only in this scene does any real illumination seem to take place: light and water are both associated with music. Music becomes an antidote to the alienation that poisons the boy's life. After he listens to Bird play, "he opened his eyes. . . ." Later, he begins to play the sax himself, "till the sounds he made became like a power of speech." If there is any relief from "the ache of aliveness," it would seem to be in the power of art to teach us that "it never gets totally dark."
Night in Tunisia has its limitations. Jordan's obsessive use of traditional, elemental symbols (most comspicuously, the ocean) can get a bit ponderous. And this collection has a much narrower range than, say, Joyce's Dubliners: the terrain, both emotional and physical, doesn't vary much from story to story. But, for all that, Jordan is a unique writer. His prose, like the room in "A Love," is "seductively bare." His fiction is poetic in the best sense of the world, which is to say that he manipulates certain images skillfully without using more words than necessary. This is an exciting book by the kind of writer who makes you curious about what he'll do next.