Review of Books
By Irish America Staff
December / January 2016
The Dunning Man
By Kevin Fortuna
The characters in The Dunning Man are your friends, your wives and husbands, your acquaintances you see too seldom and when you see them again you remember why you hadn’t seen them in a while. They are both better and worse versions of the people we could be and the people we know. This duality is possible because Kevin Fortuna has an ear for the way blue collar, or formerly blue collar, people talk and act. He has a sense of inherent self-destructive behavior that can be at once charming and disarming. And he knows how to tell a story.
The five stories that comprise Kevin Fortuna’s debut cover all of this ground, while challenging the notion of ethical behavior, morality, and loyalty. As the title suggests, the debt collector is ever-present. In these stories though, the debt isn’t always monetary – a man taking the train from New York to the Jersey Shore to see, impress, and reevaluate his relationship with a woman he isn’t even sure of in the first place; a wife coming to terms with her husband’s theft (it was for a moral cause); a Gulf and Iraq war vet who can’t stop creating situations he has to get himself out of, under the premise of defending the honor of a friend; a woman unsure of the role she played in encouraging her friend’s advances; a landlord plagued by his apparent inability to be firm.
And yet, in all of these stories, there is something redeemable about the debtor. The payment was paid for a good cause, for a cause the character believed to be noble. So despite the acts of grave robbing, bar fights, or dashboard lines of cocaine, the characters who perform these movements behave in a socially uninhibited way. And, through Fortuna’s skill of storytelling, they become at once a caution and an aspiration.
The Dunning Man takes the settings of New York City and its periphery to explore the moral divide between what being a good person means and what an ethical person might aspire to be. His cast of Irish and Irish American characters – the surnames Murphy, Sullivan, Dolan, Dunne, Ryan, and Tierney all feature – both observe and participate in the ubiquitous thought process of, “What if I did this tonight?” (Almost all of his stories take place after happy hour, and alcohol features prominently.) Fortuna’s characters follow through, and in doing so ask us to question our own confidence in social decision-making. They beg us to ask the deceptively simple question of, “Why?” It will be exciting to see what his sophomore collection brings.
[ED: The Dunning Man is available exclusively through Amazon.com, with the first $10,000 of sales being donated to Concern.]
– Adam Farley
(Lavender Ink / 140 p / $11.95)
By Kevin Barry
Kevin Barry’s Beatlebone imagines that in May of 1978, John Lennon returns to Dorinish, the Irish island that he purchased nine years prior (the latter is actually factual). John is emotionally trapped, creatively stagnant, and feeling much, much older than 37, so he heads to County Mayo with the harebrained plan to go out to his island for three days and three nights to be alone and to “Scream” – based on the therapeutic Primal Scream technique pioneered by psychiatrist Dr. Alfred Janov. There John meets Cornelius O’Grady, his Powers-drinking, larger-than-life driver, bodyguard, and spirit guide. Their exchanges, peppered with Barry’s lyrically vulgar dialogue, drive the plot.
But John’s path to the island is beset by the press, faulty cars, and drunken seisiúns, without which his inability to reach Dorinish would come off as almost Kafkaesque. Just around page 200, when Cornelius finally, definitively tells John, “We are heading for the island,” Barry himself interrupts the plot, recounting his own quest for Beatle Island, as it was locally known in the 1970s and ’80s. The intrusion is jarring at first, but then, as more details of Barry’s journey echo Lennon’s earlier in the novel, it becomes clear that the John Lennon of Beatlebone is more than just an imagining of the former Beatle returning to his bit of Ireland – and his bit of Irishness – but a blending of author and subject into an amalgam that cannot simply be read as an approximation of the real-life Lennon. John’s struggle is, at its heart, the artist’s struggle – the struggle to create, whether it is a record or a book.
“Dead love stories are what make us,” John muses, and indeed, some of the most touching moments in the novel are when he imagines details of his parents’ courtship.
References to Beatles songs do appear, but Barry deploys them with restraint, blending them with hints of other musicians and nods to the greats of the Irish literary canon. The penultimate section of the novel finishes with John recording a very Molly Bloom-esque monologue with a rather Beckettian opening: “and if i have nothing left to say – well okay – because when i have nothing left to say.”
Barry recently received the Goldsmiths Prize, a new award for “fiction that breaks the mold or opens up new possibilities for the novel form.” Beatlebone certainly does that, jumping between tenses, narrators, and genre, but crafting a novel that is often heartfelt, frequently funny, and always true at its core.
– Julia Brodsky
(Doubleday / 320 p / $24.95)
Strangers on a Bridge: The Case of Colonel Abel and Francis Gary Powers
By James B. Donovan
James B. Donovan’s best-selling Strangers on a Bridge, the subject of a new film, called Bridge of Spies, by director Steven Spielberg and the screenwriting duo Joel and Ethan Coen, has been re-released with a new foreword from author Jason Mathews.
Strangers on a Bridge tells the story of James Donovan, a New York based Irish-American lawyer, who came to defend one of the most valuable Soviet spies ever apprehended by the FBI. While the book contains many elements of a classic Soviet-era spy thriller, what makes his telling so much more rewarding is the knowledge that the entire drama is rooted in historical fact.
Through his descriptions of Colonel Rudolf Abel, the Soviet spy in question, Donovan reveals his thoughtfulness and empathy as a defense attorney and a writer. Abel, aside from being a master spy, was a polyglot, scientist, and artist, who was willing to sacrifice everything for the good of his country. Such a person emerges from Donovan’s depiction as nothing short of a hero. It is not to be forgotten, however, that while Donovan was defending Abel, he was also defending what he saw as the right of any man, enemy agents of espionage included, to a fair trial.
Donovan’s foresight kept Abel from the death penalty when he argued that he might be used later for a spy swap with Soviets. This proved fruitful when Francis Gary Powers was captured after being shot down while flying the famous U2 spy plane. Through negotiations, led once again by Donovan, Powers was later exchanged for Abel on the Gleinicke bridge, which linked Soviet territory to the American sector in Berlin.
Told in an intimate and matter of fact way, Donovan’s book effortlessly bridges the spy-genre with history and memoir. Filled with insightful anecdotes and abounding with Donovan’s indefatigable sense of humor, this book deserves not only its re-release, but also its adaptation for the silver screen.
– R. Bryan Willits
(Scribner / 465 p / $16)
Mary McGrory: The First Queen of Journalism
By John Norris
In a journalistic landscape dripping with sensationalism and inundated with non-news attractions, the loss of journalist Mary McGrory is sorely apparent. While we may not see the likes of another Mary McGrory for quite some time, we luckily have a new biography of her life and work by John Norris to keep us satiated.
Norris, who is a senior fellow at the Center of American Progress and a former friend of McGrory, offers a comprehensive view of McGrory’s life and times. Chronicling the life of a journalist who thrived on telling a good story, Norris peppers his narrative with many McGroyrisms, from her first assignment as a journalist covering the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954 to her poignant column on President John F. Kennedy’s funeral, where she noted “it had that decorum and dash that were his special style.”
Throughout her 85 long years, Norris vividly creates the back door drama and insider know-how that made McGrory a household name and champion journalist. She famously made President Nixon’s “enemies list” and was a friend and admirer of John F. Kennedy. Norris notes that there may have been an affair between Kennedy and McGrory, but quickly dismisses it, quoting Robert Kennedy’s opinion that “there was something of the Irish mother in the way she looked at him; something of the Irish sister. She loved him, and he knew he had her.”
Ironically, it is McGrory’s Irishness and personal life in particular that are the weakest points of Norris’s biography. He details in a few spare pages McGrory’s early Irish Catholic upbringing in Boston, where she was the daughter of first-generation immigrant Edward McGrory, whose Irish Catholic roots never left his daughter. Norris problematically notes that “Mary decided that her public face would be that of a McGrory rather than a Jacobs, and with the zeal of a convert she became more Irish than any Irishman.”
Observations like these go unexplained, which further blurs the focus of McGrory herself.
More successful is Norris’s commentary on McGrory’s rise as a female journalist, starting as a book reviewer for the Washington Evening Star and moving on to reporting only when she told her boss that she wasn’t going to be married (married women were not given reporting assignments). Even as one of the top journalists in the country, McGrory was barred from entering the all male National Press Club, where she was forced to sit in the balcony, later quipping “the food was better in the balcony.”
Norris’s new biography, while flawed in parts, dutifully recreates the life and lasting legacy of Mary McGrory, a voice much needed in journalism today.
– Matthew Skwiat
(Viking / 352 p / $28.95)