In "Home Before Night" playwright Hugh Leonard, who wrote the widely acclaimed "Da," recounts his experiences as the adopted son of Mag and Nick, his mammy and da, who lived on the outskirts of Dublin in a two-room company cottage near the sea. "In our town, as elsewhere, even the smallest cottage was and still is divided in two: one part for living in, the other as an ideal, a regret and an aspiration, all in one."
We are with Hugh Leonard, called Jack in the book, in his childhood, his school days, his tumbling adolescence, his desk clerking years in the civil service, and finally we share in his fevered excitement when at last he finds an escape from the shabby banality that has surrounded him nearly 30 years.
"Home Before Night," does not present a plot so much as it presents a series of scenes glowing along this trajectory of Jack's life. Whatever interest the life holds for us is due to the people in it: a batty aunt, a dissolute uncle, a fatuous schoolmaster, a misanthropic boss, a caring scold of a mammy, and, unforgettably, Jack's gentle ineffectual da.
With no impression of contrivance, Leonard's technique, redolent of Dickens, is to let each character's most memorable traits emerge in a dramatic situation that naturally highlights them. The sentences themselves are wry -- most of them express grainy, poetical wit. Each scene is a virtuosic set piece: his mother's huffy embarrassment at the picture show when Jack identifies her with Marie Dressler; Da's preposterous explanation of adultery; the easeful confession with Father Clarke, who, shell-shocked after four years in the trenches, regards all sins committed in Ireland as mere jaywalking.
During 13 years of tedious desk work in the civil service, Leonard must have taken to heart the advice of his churlish boss, Mr. Drumm: "'Never describes an experience until it is long past. Assimilate it as you would food. Let it turn into calcium and protein, with the waste matter excreted.' This reminded him to take his indigestion tablets. He turned a belch into a small gasp and said: "The mind has bowels, too, you know.'" There is a degree of exaggeration in Leonard's portraits but we do not care. We ask only to be delighted.
Indeed, so luminescent with character is this book that the prose tends to take on the temperamental hue of whatever character it carries along. Leonard has all but extinguished his personality in order to create characters with a free-breathing life of their own.
At the center of the book is Da himself, the deepest mystery of them all. He is possessed of a blithe inanity that makes him seem little more than an old addlepate. But we eventually suspect that what seems to be simple foolishness in the man is really a marvelous capacity to connect himself to the common stream of life and find unsurpassable spiritual comfort there. Out on a walk he and Jack hear "the soft far-away sighing noise of the sea on Killiney Strand. He has never known his da not to stop here, to look at the mountains, draw in his breath and say: 'Sure isn't it the finest bloody country in the world!'" Da thought the ordinary wondrous. "The sort he was, give him a crumb and he called it a banquet."
By most estimates Mammy and Da's social station is low, their intellectual and economic capacity meager. With all the wranglings and mishaps that go on among the people of this book, we might think it is about how impudent people can be with one another. It is. But on a deeper level "Home Before Night" is a toughly wistful, level-eyed look at familial love, the kind of love that is not beautiful or charming, that is more messy than neat, more turbulent than calm, that is incovenient odd, vocal -- and stronger than human will. For Jack "it would be years before he learned that love turned up-side-down is love for all that."