Book Reviews

The Hill Road by Patrick O'Keefe

By Tom Deignan, Contributor
June / July 2006


Former New Yorker writer Bill Barich is best known for his horse racing book Laughing in the Hills, published 25 years ago now. For his latest book, Barich has again written about horses, but this time added Ireland as a topic as well in A Fine Place to Daydream: Racehorses, Romance and the Irish. Barich fell in love, moved to Dublin and took quickly to the Irish love for the race track. As Barich explores Ireland, he also meets top trainers, horses and jockeys. A Fine Place to Daydream builds up to the English Cheltenham Festival in March — when Irish and British patriotism do battle on the track. Along the way, Barich paints a humorous picture of Ireland that will appeal to racing fans and non-fans alike. ($23 / 228 pages / Knopf)


It seems the Boston Irish mob has a new racket — writing and publishing books. Three convicted Boston gangsters have hit best-seller lists, to go along with a fourth Boston Irish mob book penned by a veteran observer of the beantown criminal scene. All four authors have been involved in verbal slugfests lately. Kevin Weeks has written Brutal: The Untold Story of My Life Inside Whitey Bulger’s Irish Mob, ($25.95 / 304 pages / Regan Books) and recently blasted — verbally — John (Red) Shea, author of Rat Bastards: The Life and Times of South Boston’s Most Honorable Irish Mobster. ($24.95 / 304 pages William Morrow) “He’s exaggerating his role,” Weeks recently said of Shea in The New York Times. Shea, who spent over a decade in jail on drug charges, responded by blasting Weeks, whose own jail sentence was lightened because he cooperated with authorities. “I don’t think a rat deserves any publicity,” said Shea. Also published recently is The Brothers Bulger: How They Terrorized and Corrupted Boston for a Quarter Century ($25.95 / 352 pages / Warner Books) by Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr, exploring Bulger and his brother Billy, a former state senator and University of Massachusetts president. Though not an underworld member, Carr was still drawn into the slugfest.  Weeks told 60 Minutes that he planned to shoot Mr. Carr, but did not pull the trigger because the journalist came out of his home with his daughter. Carr, meanwhile, said Weeks “didn’t have the stones” to kill him. The final entry in all of this is Patrick Nee’s A Criminal and an Irishman: The Inside Story of the Boston Mob-I.R.A. Connection. ($24.95 / 240 pages / Steerforth) Carr recently had Nee as well as Shea on a radio show he hosts. Understandably, Weeks was not invited.


Alan Brinkley, one of America’s leading historians and scholars, has tackled some of the largest themes in U.S. history. Interesting then that his latest book would be about a seemingly simple Irish priest. Parish Priest: Father Michael McGivney and American Catholicism is a revealing look at the founder of the Knights of Columbus. McGivney founded the “KOC” as a fraternal society offering low-cost life insurance to immigrant families who faced destitution if the head of the household died. Today KOC insures more than 1.2 million men, women and children. Efforts are now afoot to canonize McGivney, to make him a saint for all the good works he did, even though he died at the very young age of 38. McGivney was born in Waterbury, Connecticut, on August 12, 1852. His parents, Patrick and Mary (Lynch) McGivney, arrived in the U.S. as part of the great 19th century wave of Irish immigration. Patrick McGivney became a molder amidst the heat and deadly fumes of a Waterbury brass mill. Mary McGivney gave birth to 13 children, six of whom died in infancy or childhood. So at an early age, the first child, Michael, learned about the harshness of poverty. But, as many children of Irish immigrants before him, he also learned about the powers of love and faith. As Brinkley’s book makes clear, McGivney may have seemed a simple man, but he clearly did change the way Irish Catholics lived in the U.S. ($24.95 / 256 pages / William Morrow)


Though a bit scholarly, Private Histories: The Writings of Irish Americans, 1900 -1935 by Ron Ebest is a fascinating look at an interesting time in Irish American literary history. Ebest, assistant professor of literature and writing at St. Louis Community College at Florissant Valley, St. Louis, Missouri, explores religion, family, marriage and more in the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald, James T. Farrell and Eugene O’Neill. It is in the work of lesser known authors (such as Anne O’Hagan, Jim Tully, Clara Laughlin and John T. McIntyre) that Ebest perhaps makes his most interesting contribution. ($25 / 319 pages / Notre Dame Press)


All Will Be Well – John McGahern. 

The Irish literary world suffered a terrible loss in late March when celebrated novelist and short story writer John McGahern — easily one of the 20th Century’s greatest Irish writers — died of cancer at the age of 71. In a twist not unlike those which dotted his fictional explorations of rural Irish life, McGahern’s own life story All Will Be Well was published here in the U.S. just weeks before McGahern died. All Will Be Well reveals the often tortured inspirations behind McGahern’s powerful, beautiful fiction. McGahern was the oldest of seven children from Leitrim. We read that McGahern’s father, a police sergeant, has a violent streak which, invariably, is directed towards his almost saintly mother. Sadly, McGahern’s mother, a teacher, died of breast cancer when John was just nine. Indeed, there are several familiar themes of Irish fiction in McGahern’s life story: for example, a beloved mother and domineering father. In another echo of many Irish narratives, McGahern initially set his sites on the priesthood, partially because it clearly would impress his mother. However, the McGahern children do not buckle following their tragedy. According to McGahern, his mother’s love, her legacy of independence, was so strong that it helped the children survive the hard years they lived under their father’s rule. McGahern, whose writing career was bound up in lush, clear-eyed descriptions of the Irish countryside, describes his own home as such: “There was no running water then, other than in streams or rivers, no electricity, no TV, very few radios, and when newspapers were bought they were shared between houses. Each locality lived within its own small world.” Rather than the priesthood, of course, it was writing which would call McGahern, and not only intellectually. As with Joyce (to whom McGahern is often compared) McGahern drifted away from rural Ireland. He travels to Dublin and London, then the continent — Paris, Spain and even the United States. But for all that travel, it was in McGahern’s homeland — specifically rural Ireland, its beauty and also its provincial nature — which was his muse, in his early novels (such as The Dark and Amongst Women) through the later short stories which have earned their place among Ireland’s finest. As McGahern writes: “The people and the language and landscape…were like my breathing.” It is to every reader of Irish literature’s benefit that McGahern was able to complete this book before he died. ($25/304 pages Knopf)


Pete Hamill has re-released his second novel, The Gift, first published in 1973. Long out of print, The Gift is a small gem. Set on Hamill’s home town (1950s Brooklyn), The Gift is about a young Navy man who comes home for Christmas. His girl has left him, his mother is short on money, and on Christmas Eve he has a confrontation with the father who has always seemed like a stranger to him. The Gift (the setting of which might remind readers of Hamill’s Snow in August) shows us that Hamill can work well in short as well as in long form. ($16.95 / 160 pages / Little, Brown)


Another excellent work of shorter fiction is The Hill Road by Patrick O’Keefe. Born and raised on a dairy farm in Limerick, O’Keeffe presents four connected novellas that link various generations through landscape, love and loss. A farmer falls in love with the sister of a girl he once treated cruelly. A soldier back from the World War I front recalls the life of a tragic aunt. O’Keeffe, who emigrated from Ireland to the U.S. in the 1980s and received a degree in English from the University of Kentucky, writes in the spirit of William Trevor and the aforementioned John McGahern. ($23.95 / 225 pages / Viking)


Irish detective Jack Taylor — star of Ken Bruen’s previous pot-boilers The Guards and The Killing of the Tinkers — returns in The Dramatist. Shockingly for devoted readers of Bruen, Taylor has sobered up and life is treating him fairly well. Yet again, however, murder puts him on the trail of a Dublin killer. Throw in an ex-lover (with an abusive husband) and a group of vigilantes, which may or may not be targeting Taylor, and it puts the reluctant detective back into the shadowy Dublin underworld he knows only too well. ($22.95 / 256 pages / Minotaur)


Adrian McKinty has written a sequel to his previous thriller Dead I Well May Be, in which protagonist Michael Forsythe must infiltrate the IRA. McKinty (himself a native of Northern Ireland) opens his new book, The Dead Yard in Spain, with a riot between Irish and English soccer fans. Forsythe ends up in prison, where a sexy British intelligence agent makes Forsythe an offer: infiltrate an IRA group in the U.S. and all charges will be dropped. International intrigue, double-crossing, sexual tension and gritty dialogue ensue, in what is becoming a durable series for McKinty. ($25 / 292 pages / Scribner)


Finally, stepping away from contemporary city crime, Rhys Bowen steps back in time with her latest Molly Murphy mystery Oh Danny Boy. This time around, immigrant private investigator Molly is planning to ditch the life of crime solving and move out west. That is, until a handsome but not entirely trustworthy police captain is tossed into jail for accepting bribes. Molly is asked to help prove this is a set-up and the chase is on in this, the fifth installment in Bowen’s Molly Murphy series. ($23.95 / 325 pages / Minotaur)

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