The Dark was the McGahern novel that I had on hand, his second, a coming of age story that seemed a good counterpoint to The Leavetaking, my last McGahern, a novel that explored his own departure from the teaching trade.
The Dark opens with a classic scene that is typical of the author. The young narrator has used “that word”, his abusive father heard him and it is time for a whipping with the leather strop that is used to hone the knives and razors. He is forced to strip, in his sisters’ bedroom — perhaps even more humiliating than the punishment itself — and await his punishment from the evil father, Mahoney:
“Into that chair with you. On your mouth and nose. I’ll give your arse something it won’t forget in a hurry.”
“No, Daddy, no. I didn’t mean,” he gave one last whimper but he had to lie in the chair, lie there and was as a broken animal. Something in him snapped. He couldn’t control his water and it flowed from him over the leather of the seat. He’d never imagined horror such as this, waiting naked for the leather to come down on his flesh, would it ever come, it was impossible and yet nothing could be more worse than this waiting.
“I’ll teach you a lesson for once,” and then he cried out as the leather came, exploding with a shot on the leather of the armrest over his ear, his whole body stiff, sweat breaking, and it was impossible to realize he hadn’t actually been hit yet.
That quote is McGahern-dark and there is a lot of that in this book of the same name. The mother of the family has died, Mahoney is inclined to drink and abuse anyway and is well beyond his capabilities in raising the children. Parenting becomes a version of bullying and abuse; indeed what the narrator and his siblings most effectively learn is how to bond with each other in a mocking reaction against their father.
As terrible as family life is, it is a life that is known. And for the young in this family, that is a constant that may be better than what the future might hold. The narrator’s oldest sister has had her first period, there is no opportunity in the district and a priest who is an uncle has found her a “situation” in a drapery shop nearby — she is due to depart the nest:
“So the first bird is leaving the nest?” the priest said.
What was there to do but nod in vague depression, she was going, all departures touched in some way everyone’s departure, became disturbing echoes.
“You’ll not feel till your own turn?”
“You have no final inkling of what you might do yet?”
“No, it’ll depend on the exams.”
“Do you still think of the priesthood?”
“Yes, father, if I could be good enough.”
“It was a great pity you were never sent to the Diocesan Seminary, the time your father wanted you to stay at home from school altogether.”
That exchange captures much of what is so good about McGahern. Joan is headed into the world — surely that must be a good thing given how terrible her existence in the family is, but, but, but — perhaps the future might be worse. And her departure plays back on the state of her brother, the narrator, who basically has four options:
— taking over the marginal farm from his father and remaining, at least for now, in the oppressive womb.
— the priesthood, as represented by his uncle.
— excelling in the Leaving exams, winning a scholarship to the University (only two are on offer in the entire district) or perhaps a spot with the ESB.
— moving to England, to seek his fortune there.
One of the things that McGahern does exceptionally well in this novel, at least for this reader, is alter the voice of his point of view. For me, some of the most impressive parts are narrated in the second person, by far the most difficult for an author to convey. The author puts you in the circumstances of his central character and leads you through all of the conflicts he is facing: opportunity? history? security? fear? Perhaps most impressively, he acknowledges that we all hedge our bets in the real world. That makes this a realistic novel of the first order.
The Dark is definitely not a cheery novel and it won’t go well with all the green beer that will be on the table here in North America on St. Pat’s Day tomorrow. It is, however, an exceptionally good novel that captures the difficult choices that a young man must make in this environment — if you want, the narrator is the polar opposite of Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye. Holden actively avoids choices, this narrator has no choice but to make them. If you have not read John McGahern, make room for him on your list. He is an exceptionally good writer and this dark, dark novel is a very good example of him at his best. Recommended without any hesitation.