It may be deeply nihilistic to wonder whether certain forms of war are more horrible than others, but I am tempted, after finishing Ambrose Clancy's first novel, "Blind Pilot," to give a long bleak stretch of thought to just that notion. It's not that one war has better cause, clearer logic, plainer inevitability than another. These are questions of reason and justice and can be, in comparison, almost comfortably graded. What persists in the mind, and what the grim clarity of Clancy's prose argues, is that the forms themselves, the styles and lines of violence, suggest a preverse sort of preference for conventional war, and suggest that the shape of death that has spread and stayed in modern-day Ireland is the most horrible form of all.
Ireland's war is infinite, seeded in that land's creation, nurtured by its black romantic psyche, a daily war of tiny horrors scattered here and there throughout the countryside, fleeting, glaring, gone. It is that war's deceptively contained scale -- small as a moment, huge as a national soul -- that makes it seem, in contrast with the full, symphonic and physically finished wars of grand-scale history, the deepest brutality. For, as Clancy powerfully shows, it is a war that can, at some level, be placed within a civil routine. Indeed, its very strategies rely on that facility. Battles are planned around the time of day a car is finished being tuned up. War conferences are scheduled on a convenient weekend at a donated estate. Ireland's war does not so much exemplify evil made banal as evil made mundane. Its tiny horrors are schemed, executed, done, and the day goes on around them, like the flesh receiving and healing over a bullet. But the bullet lies always just under the skin, leaking lead.
One of these battles shapes the events of "Blind Pilot." Members of the Irish Socialist Army, at civil war with the Provisional IRA, plan and carry out the rescue of their aging leader, Joseph Walsh, as he's being transported in government police caravan from a Dublin jail to another in the countryside. There are, in the ISA rescue squad, a young Irish woman, a rich and lovely German, and an American male, the German's latest lover. In the village of Kildare, they meet the caravan, murder its members, retrieve Joseph Walsh, and flee, accidentally killing a small boy watching open-mouthed as he holds his mother's hand and waits to cross the street. In a war where no one is in uniform, everyone is.
Around this mission, Clancy takes us up and back in time, into the past of each of these characters and at least a dozen others, releasing his events with the centripetal speed every living novel displays. Through it all, we see the reaching beauty of the country, feel its winds, hear its sounds, smell its pubs. And through it all, too, the war and its agents are forever moving.
The plot -- Clancy has constructed a story more than sufficient to contain his people and his themes -- then follows a huge shipment of ISA arms toward a rendezvous with the Provisionals. A proposed realliance. Our guns and philosophy; your organization and your numbers. All points negotiable. Yet, as tightly as the plot holds, the episodes themselves are secondary to the skill with which Clancy has drawn the characters who populate them (particularly a government policeman, a fully dislocated Irishman who doesn't drink and cannot believe in his Catholic God, and whose conscience ill serves his work). Among the revolutionaries, we learn of motives for service. O'Connor, the American, is finished with the '60s, with art, and with the pale colors of any anger that cannot kill. Having gotten as high as a daily alchemy of Benzedrine, Dexedrine and coffee can take him, he finds, to his pleasure, that the ISA inspires his adrenalin. Gudrun Bohm, the German heiress, has tired of Bader-Meinhof stupidity. She wants an articulate revolution, and one that might finally take from her all her wealth and goods and everything else she needs to apologize for. Martin Burke, an American journalist and friend of O'Connor's who gets drawn in and bloodied by the war, can no longer, at 40, abide a generous life, which he seems to have earned by something so simple as geniune warmth and charm.
Clancy shows us, in other words, a modern mercenary who's drawn to revolution not for what he can give but for what he can take from it. Clancy's soldiers are responding, eagerly and greedily, to their own narcissism. O'Connor stops at a pub, the night of the killings in Kildare, to watch the news of his performance on television. Gudrun Bohm sees images in a bedside mirror of the lusting cadences of Sunday morning love with a revolutionary leader. Clancy tells us that these are the new generation of fighters fueling the struggle, those to whom Joseph Walsh -- old, failing, a Socialist soldier and the ISA's mind -- will leave the war.
So strongly conceived are Clancy's characters, and so completely does he desire to tell us about them, that at times his exposition comes in awkward chunks attached for obvious purpose to a moment that cannot hold them. At times, he also heavily handles the ironic musings of men about to die, telling us of their relief at the thought of just one more day, one last assignment, one final hour, until they are free and away from Ireland.
But these are minor annoyances, more than balanced by deft sketches, quick prose pauses: "Cleary [was] dead. He had reminded Burke of his father and men from the old neighborhood . . . A certain type of Irishman, who had the sandy hair, the freckled skin, carrying himself well. The type of man who, when not working, would never be caught dead without a clean pressed shirt, the sleeves rolled one turn, just so. The type of man who was more intelligent than his mates, but made no show of it." And, in the mind of a released revolutionary: "After being caged up with adult men for three years children seemed so delicate, so fragile that I was afraid to be with them."
This is an admirably ambitious first novel. Ambitious not so much in terms of its aims as literature, but in a very important sense, increasingly ignored in contemporary, cleanly realized but curiously dispassionate storytelling: Clancy is eager to tell us something that deeply matters, certainly to him and, potentially, to a wide and receptive audience. One hopes that "Blind Pilot," having achieved its ambitions, will now achieve its audience.