If you understand that the life of this island and its counties is permeated by strange sea-blown forces and occult shimmers, that in fact nine-tenths of the true life here lies beneath the surface of ordinary things and is utterly unexplainable, and thus beautiful, then you will understand that Dermot Healy’s work feeds from this critical truth like nobody else’s, and a close reading of it may help you break through to the stranger dimensions.
Witness chapter fourteen of the novel Long Time, No See, a sprightly twelve-page roundelay called ‘Sightseeing’. It depicts a weekend night on the streets of Sligo town. Mister Psyche and his mother and father and the dog, Timmy, have driven in from their home on the coast. We understand this to be a ritual excursion. The father goes walkabout—I use the aboriginal term advisedly—and huddles in various doorways of the town as he watches the night’s moves. Mister Psyche and the mother, meanwhile, sit darkly cocooned in the car down by the Tesco. They eat a few sweets and monitor the night, also. It drifts in strange eddies and turns, as though on the drag of the moon. They occasionally break off from their quiet observations to have a mooch about the streets themselves. There are random bits of chat with recurring spacers. The récit busies along on very light feet—the style is honed and fine, the authorial voice is the merest whisper of a breeze across this night and world, but listen carefully and you will hear the steady beating of a clean narrative pulse. We are presented with the surface of things—a town that is simultaneously gaudy and drab—but only as an instruction that we should try to look beneath, that we should try to go deeper. Here is Mister Psyche, having a wander around a monastery in the town, and finding that it presents a vantage view:
I climbed the round steps up and looked down out of that V-shaped window. Underneath the souls in coats strolled in a medley. Even as they talked together, squinting to the person on their left, or right, they looked like animals entering new territory; and those who knew the place, and walked ahead through the dark with great confidence, were more alone than the strangers. I waved, but no one saw me.
Those most familiar with the terrain are most compromised by it. Great oddness might lurk in the shadows; pools of unknowable darkness might lie beyond the normal realm. But we are not going to get too het up about this; there is no hand-wringing, nor existential despair—Mister Psyche and the mother go and eat a crepe outside the cinema. The father remains in the doorways, watching the town with the bead of a hawk—if he didn’t, it might disappear.
More night, more life:
The Hill was full of Northern bucks wrapped in shawls. Three girls, dressed as barbers, were singing in the Glazed Oven. Ma bought three slices of tongue, a bag of paprika, almond nuts and yes, sage, she said. At the monument a woman was screaming into her friend’s mobile. Ma strolled over to Molloy’s the drapers to see the style. She passed my father who was standing outside Currid’s the chemists. She did not look at him, and he did not look at her.
Chronologically we are in the present tense but also we are in the future-medieval. It is impossible to situate this work in any canon. We are neither in the dreary kitchens of social realism nor in the heritage park of late modernism. Healy is something very unexpected and rare in the literature now: he is original.
Mister Psyche and the mother are back in the car. A young one stumbles against the car in the dark. Certainly she is half-cut and we suspect that she is on tablets. She has a huge pair of eyes on her. An exchange of unmarked dialogue lowers itself by careful holds down the rockface of the page:
We’re waiting for my father.
Oh is he doing the shopping?
Ah, I know, he’s in the pub.
It’s kinda mad. What’s he doing?
He’s walking about, looking round him.
Oh. And you just like sit … like … here?
Is right, said Ma.
Yes, every Saturday night.
And Christmas Eve.
The lines are pared to the quick and play queer music. The rhythm is not overly emphasised, being properly sprung. There is lightness, lightness on every page of the novel, and the pages turn as they should in a piece of natural art, as in the unchangeable sequence of a dream, but—ho ho—a trap is all the while being set for the reader. What we are being given here in slow reveal is another tragedy, another goat-song.
Long Time, No See is also a repository of great strangenesses. An old stone wall is recovered from beneath the sea and Mister Psyche can sense the reverb of its ancient constructor’s building rhythm. There is a virtuosic set piece on the cleaning of a big house’s chimney. Time is not entirely fixed—it comes and goes with the Atlantic gusts. Half the time—as in life—you wouldn’t know where you are nor when. The inanimate is often enlivened:
An empty bucket went flying across the field … A heave of salt flew across …
Land and the weather will sometimes speak; the buildings of the towns and villages hardly ever shut up. Memory seeps into the stones of our places, and it leaves us in no doubt of its lingering.
The novel sifts its material and allows it to build in slow accumulation. Dunes of quiet prose form in scimitar drifts. The bird life is in every ounce and atom as important as the human; its music is our constant grace and fills the skies:
A choir of starlings stood feeding on the seeds of the New Zealand flax that stood over my head in the next flower garden. Hallo, I called. Hallo, they called back. Then they began the flirty whistling. A stonechat spun by, then the wren, with a tipped-up tail, hopped along a branch of olearia, keeping time to a questioning song she sang alone.
The book is utterly practical; also it is away with the faeries. Always, always it is pressing a palm lightly against the screen that shades us with a grey gauze from the Otherworld. The accent of a very particular sector of the Irish north west is delineated with precision. We listen intently to what’s not being said beneath the surface of the talk. There are constant silent tussles beneath the babble of talk. In Long Time, No See, whenever two Irishmen say hello to each other, one of them loses.
The power of the novel accumulates, too. Slowly but definitely, and gladly, we enter the world of the book; the accent quickens, life and the night happens, and quietly a great fiction writer is at his work; the mesmeric forces assert.
Dermot Healy (1947–2014) was one of Ireland‘s most admired writers. When he passed away in 2014, he left behind a unique body of work that spans the full literary spectrum: fiction (four novels and one short-story collection), non-fiction (The Bend For Home, a memoir), five poetry collections, and nine plays.
He was a great supporter of his fellow writers. He founded and edited the literary journals, The Drumlin and Force 10, and he gave generously of his time facilitating workshops and local writers’ groups in Sligo and Leitrim. We were very happy to have him as a guest speaker on our novel-writing workshop in the Irish Writers’ Centre and to have had the opportunity to publish an extract from his last novel, Long Time, No See, in our Spring 2011 issue.
Kevin Barry’s essay here is an advance printing from the forthcoming book Dermot Healy: Writing the Sky—Critical Essays and Observations (edited by Neil Murphy and Keith Hopper) which was published in 2016 by Dalkey Archive Press. We are thankful to both the editors and to Kevin for permission to publish the essay.