The Dark, by John McGahern


Purchased at

Mrs. KfC suggested the other night that a St. Patrick’s Day posting might be appropriate (I know we treat the day much more seriously in North America than the Irish do — any excuse to drink beer in March, I’d say — but what the heck). I am susceptible to the slimmest of excuse to pick up another John McGahern novel and that suggestion was motivation enough. McGahern ranks as my personal “discovery” of 2009, with many thanks to kimbofo at Reading Matters and John Self at Asylum. They both know Irish fiction much better than I do, but both are also wonderful guides — you will find reviews of McGahern on both their sites.

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?”

“No, father.”

“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.

36 Responses to “The Dark, by John McGahern”

  1. Craig D. Says:

    “the narrator is the polar opposite of Holden Caulfield”

    At the risk of provoking the wrath of Salinger lovers, thank fucking God.


  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Now, now Craig.


  3. kimbofo Says:

    Glad you enjoyed this one… Have to say it’s my least favourite in the McGahern canon, but still very good.

    Your Penguin cover is so much nicer than my horrible Faber one. Not that I am shallow and judge books by their covers! LOL.


  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I do like this cover. The lonely priest walking his bicycle into the future.

    I’m not surprised this is your least favorite McGahern. It is a very male book (and there are not a lot of those) and, unusually for McGahern in my limited experience, he does not develop his female characters. He also does not dismiss them, it is just that they don’t seem relevant to this work.

    I did very much enjoy this book. We all have to make choices in our life and this is a novel about making choices — and how difficult that is. I have not indulged in spoilers in the last part of the book, as much as I wanted to. This, for me, is where McGahern truly makes this a wonderful novel. Still no spoilers from here.


  5. Mary Says:

    Like you I discovered MacGahern last year because a favourite Irish author of mine – Deirdre Madden- chose The Barracks as one of the best books she’d read and it was indeed, wonderful. I’ve already posted something on it on Asylum. Interestingly – with reference to your comment about female characters – `The Barracks’ has a beautifully developed central character who is a woman and who is married to an embittered and difficult man. It is superbly written and I loved it. I’ve got a copy of `Amongst Women’ to read when I’m in a MacGahern mood ie a bit glum. The Dark was adapted for UK TV several years ago and it was an extremely intense and gripping adaption and difficult to watch at times.


  6. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Lovely observation on the stripping in the sisters’ room being perhaps the worst part of the punishment. It puts me in mind of my primary school (5-11 years old). If you were in Mr Mead’s class and were bad, and a boy, you were given a choice of the sandpit or the halo. The halo involved wearing a silver halo in the playground, and other children would jeer at you. The sandpit involved standing in the sandpit put aside for the 5 year olds to play in, which was located in the girl’s playground. The girls would then jeer at you, and throw things.

    With hindsight, I wonder if any of it was legal. I strongly suspect not. Mr Mead’s zeal for punishment, while containing no sexual element of any kind, was profoundly excessive for the times he found himself in.

    I avoided both punishments myself, but the true misery (apart from having an adult shout at a 10 year old as to whether they chose the sandpit or the halo, while bodily shaking them) was the humiliation. The actual pain, such as there was, seemed slight from what I saw. The embarassment massive.

    Despite that little anecdote incidentally my time at school wasn’t particularly traumatic, in case anyone wonders, but the McGahern quote reminded me that back then the fear of punishment was (as perhaps it generally is) much worse than the actual punishment, which however bad only ever lasted so long.

    It sounds excellent, but having just placed an order for half a dozen books today, it’ll have to wait a bit…


  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Mary: For all his darkness (and McGahern definitely is dark), he does do female characters very well — in this book, the circumstances of the narrator’s sister are in some ways an imperfect shadow of his own. And the women in Amongst Women are some of the strongest characters I have read about in recent years. Like kimbofo (my McGahern inspiration as Madden is yours), I am now in a McGahern rationing project to make sure I don’t finish his relatively small body of work too soon. Despite the gloominess of his stories, the books fly by when you pick them up.
    Max: Thanks for sharing your school story. The theme of bully and bully as victim does become a major one in the book, although I chose to not talk about it since the review was already rambling on. The issue of humiliation, as opposed to actual physical punishment, is very much Mahoney’s style and there is a rather nice shift in point of view as the novel goes on.

    McGahern won’t be going away (or going out of print) so I’d say it is safe to wait. I’d say your biggest decision when the time comes is whether to start with Amongst Women as I did (the concensus is that it is his best) or save it for later in the experience. If I had it to do over, I think I probably would have saved it for later — then again I can always reread it and we did just get the DVD of the video version.


  8. Max Cairnduff Says:

    If Amongst Women is the best, I won’t start with it. I’m already nervous I started with the best Jean Rhys when I read Good Morning, Midnight and am now working through novels by her which are good but not as good. I prefer to start with the good and work up to the best.


  9. leroyhunter Says:

    Amongst Women is a great book, and I can understand why the consensus has it as his best. My own preference is for That They May Face the Rising Sun, which I think may in fact be one of the greatest novels I’ve ever read, but we’re talking tiny degrees of difference between them.
    Good point about ‘where to start’: all I can add is that what you should most definitely not do (and I did) is read his wonderful Memoir before especially the early novels. Read it, but save it.


  10. Max Cairnduff Says:

    One of the best you’ve read? That’s serious praise.

    Hell, I just ordered too many books yesterday, I’ll have to bookmark this page for now and return later.


  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Leroy: I remember reading somewhere else a vote for Rising Sun as his best — I think I’ll make it next on my McGahern list, but I am going to have to start stringing them out a bit. I am generally not a memoir reader (I prefer books to authors) but given the limited amount of published McGahern works may make an exception in this case.
    Max: Surely it is no problem to try just one! He is that good.


  12. Max Cairnduff Says:

    You’re an evil man Kevin, besides, I just got reminded of a Maxwell that Trevor reviewed and of a Zweig I was unawre of and far more importantly of a Schnitzler I’d missed.

    Being back online after a few weeks of relative virtual inactivity has its dangers, to my pocket anyway…


  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: A four book order does not seem excessive, despite your order earlier in the week. Also, none of the other three you note is UK and you need to support the home front. Finally, it should be no surprise that there is a bit of backlog buildup after a few weeks if virtual inactivity. There — that should dispose of any residual guilt. Order on.


  14. leroyhunter Says:

    Kevin: it’s a fair point about the book vs the author, but there’s so much of McGahern’s life directly transplanted into his novels that reading the “straight” version is fascinating. Plus it’d be crazy to pass up any opportunity to read his beautiful prose.

    Max: such praise is inevitably purely personal, and I don’t want to oversell the book. But I believe it’s an exceptional work (even by McGahern’s standards) and I’d have no problem justifying its place in my esteem.


  15. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Leroy: I was thinking the same thing about the McGahern memoir. In some ways, he reminds me of my experience with Geoff Dyer (whom I like more often than not). While some of Dyer’s work gets described as fiction and some non-fiction, all of it seems to straddle the line between both. And I certainly share your opinion of McGahern’s prose.


  16. leroyhunter Says:

    A particularly welcome gift last Christmas was McGahern’s essay collection, Love of the World. I’ve yet to dip into it but it’s pleasing to know that it’s there, waiting.

    Dyer is someone I seem to know a lot about without having read anything by him. I have The Missing of the Somme on the TBR pile (goddamn that John Self!) but I’ve never really been taken by his novels. My loss of course, but I look forward to the Somme book.


  17. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I like Dyer’s fiction (positive reviews of both Jeff in Venice and Paris Trance are elsewhere on the blog) but have struggled with his “non-fiction”. I suspect both my age and background (I used to be a journalist, which is a big part of the attraction for Jeff in Venice) influence that judgment. I haven’t read the Somme book but do intend to get to it eventually. And I should underline that he in no way compares to McGahern. My McGahern plan is to complete the novels, then visit the memoir, then the short stories and finally the essays. Properly spread out, that is a two or three year project, which is just fine with me. He is one of those authors (William Maxwell is another) who I am quite content that I discovered late in my reading career and have ever intention of savoring over time.


  18. Craig D. Says:

    Where to start with an author is an interesting topic, since the best and the most accessible are rarely the same. In the past, I’ve recommended books to people that I must have known deep down were not the best place to start, and was rewarded with the person giving up after a few chapters and remaining leery about trying the author again. Same with movies and music, too. Also an interesting point about saving a masterpiece for later, although if it’s one of those rare cases where the masterpiece is the most accessible and the best place to start, then I would recommend starting there regardless; because you’re going to be let down, to some degree, sooner or later.


  19. john h Says:

    I haven’t read McGahern. In fact, I’ve specifically steered clear of him because of the family abuse thing that always seems to be in his books. I know this doesn’t make a lot of sense and it certainly shouldn’t stop me from reading him but for some reason it does. What do you consider his best book to be?

    Just finished John Banville’s “The Infinities.” Don’t know if you’re onto him or not but it’s terrific.


  20. Max Cairnduff Says:


    It’s why with Pynchon having started myself with The Crying of Lot 49 I now think that’s a great place to start. Most folk seem to start with Gravity’s Rainbow, which is often considered his best (I’ve not read it yet), but it’s huge and challenging. Lot 49 may not be as impressive, but it’s an awful lot more accessible and if you hate it there’s not so much of it.

    I suspect folk who might have enjoyed Pynchon end up not doing so because they start with the wrong work. Same with Joyce actually, start with Ulysses and you’ll likely never finish it or read anything more by him. Start with The Dubliners though…


  21. KevinfromCanada Says:

    john h: It is true that family abuse is a part of McGahern and I suspect does put some readers off. I don’t find it a problem with him — for me it sets up his bigger point that we all have to make some choices in life, regardless of where we come from. I run hot and cold on Banville and have to admit I abandoned The Infinities.

    Max: You can include me as one who started Pynchon with Gravity’s Rainbow and ended up abandoning both the book and him. I’d say he just isn’t my kind of author.


  22. Craig D. Says:

    Max: You expressed a familiarity with Phil Dick in the comments on the “Talented Mr. Ripley” post, and I’ve got a good example for you there: “A Scanner Darkly.” It’s his best novel in my opinion (and in the opinions of many other fans), but I know from experience that recommending it to a first-timer results in apathy and confusion on their part. I now recommend “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” since it was the first Dick novel for a huge number of fans (myself included), the one that got them hooked and thirsty for more. It’s not his best, but I think it’s got the best ratio of quality to accessibility.


  23. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Exactly Craig, that makes perfect sense. On Scanner, I consider it the finest novel on drug addiction I’ve ever read, regardless of genre. I grew up in a sort of squatter-commune in part and when I was a kid I saw a lot of the adults fall into addiction – Scanner captures that experience with astonishing accuracy.

    Which generally speaking makes it very hard reading, it’s challenging stuff. I think you’re probably right that it’s his best novel, I’d never actually considered the point before, but it’s certainly not his most accessible.

    The other candidate would probably be The Man in the High Castle, which some prefer. I’m with Scanner though, it has more passion.

    I must admit too though to a fondness for his more pulpy fiction, stuff like The World Jones Made or Our Friends from Frolix 8, it’s not nearly the same class of literature but it is fun.


  24. Kerry Says:

    Well, McGahern has to go on the TBR now. I think I have more “new to me” authors than weeks in the year. How am I to complete the works of authors I already know and love? It does give me some regrets about completing the TOB selections. I will definitely not stop reading newly published works, but I am looking forward to a string of can’t-miss greats.

    I may start with this one, saving the two candidates for his “best” for later.

    I started my Pynchon with The Crying of Lot 49 and am happy to let it rest there. I am glad I read it, for its significance in literary culture, for the impression it has made on me, and for steering me clear of the Gravity’s Rainbow iceberg. I likely would have abandoned ship too.

    Lately, I like to read an author’s work in chronological order, but that may be a passing fad. I do like saving the best, though, if I expect to read several (or all) of an author’s work.


  25. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kerry: McGahern is anything but cheery but I don’t think you will regret taking him on — in fact, I sent in an order last week for the four fiction works that I have not yet read, so I’d say my commitment is now complete. Although I do intend to space them out a bit. I don’t think you will be disappointed.

    Like you, I try to keep up with recent work and sometimes (as you are experiencing with TOB) wonder why. I don’t intend to stop but I too like the chance to get back into some proven authors whom I don’t know well.


    • Kerry Says:

      I like non-cheery books. And if you are ordering four to make a complete set, then I certainly need to make the acquaintance. I cannot read everything, but some authors are essential. McGahern has become essential for me.


  26. Craig D. Says:

    “Lately, I like to read an author’s work in chronological order”

    Yikes. I don’t know if I could do that. If I don’t read the one that interests me the most at that moment, my interest will waver. That’s why I sometimes read one that I know isn’t a good starting place for beginners. And that’s why jumping into a series is usually frustrating for me, because I do research on the books I want to read and know the plot summaries of each, and I’ll want to read book #3 the most and I can’t will myself to do so until 1 and 2 are out of the way.


  27. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I can’t think of any contemporary author whom I have set out to read in chronological order (exempting, of course, first novelists whom I like and decide to become a full-work fan). I’d say the most common pattern for me is to start out with a well-regarded (usually, but not always, the best) and follow that with another work that has a good reputation. After that, if I decide to read them all, I probably proceed chronologically more often than not. And with classic authors whom I decide to re-read or complete reading, I do approach the project chronologically — but even then it would be on the best-known works rather than the whole oeuvre. I am pretty disciplined about reading multi-volume series in order, unless for some reason I happen to have stumbled into a later book without knowing the series exists (I don’t think I research as thoroughly as you do before starting, Craig).


  28. Craig D. Says:

    I don’t do a lot of research; just enough to find out which works are considered an author’s best (or at least the most popular) and get quick plot summaries. I also have Library of America and Everyman’s Library catalogues to look through, and in my experience, if it’s included in one of those volumes, it’s probably worthwhile.

    A thought about a series: If you think the best in a series is one of the sequels, would you recommend it to a newcomer, or recommend starting at the beginning? For example, I’ve heard a lot of Harry Potter fans say that the later books are better than the earlier ones. If I were interested in HP (I’m not, but it’s an easy example), would it be best for me to pick up book 4 or 5 or whatever, or start at the beginning with a book that’s not as good and might not make me want to continue? (This is all assuming, of course, that the sequels are stand-alone works and can be understood without reading the previous works.)

    I mean, there’s a dilemma here: If you start with the best, it’s downhill from there. And if you start with something that isn’t the best, you might not be provoked into reading more. I guess the ideal starting point is something that’s good enough but not too good.

    Or maybe I just think about this stuff too much.


  29. KevinfromCanada Says:

    “I guess the ideal starting point is something that’s good enough but not too good.”

    I’d say that pretty much sums up my ideal with an author whom I don’t know but hope that I am going to like.


  30. peter Says:

    Hi Kevin,
    John McGahern is one of my favourite writers too. Another Irish novelist whose work I very much enjoy is Brian Moore. He lived for a time in Canada.


  31. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Hi Peter: Glad you like McGahern — he is a late-discovered favorite for me and I look forward to the rest of his work. I read quite a bit of Moore when I was younger (I think he did most of his writing while in Canada) and have been contemlating a project to revisit him. He has a lot of avid supporters in the book-blogging world.


  32. peter Says:

    John McGahern liked the work of the Canadian writer Alistair MacLeod. Have you read him? He’s worth reading.
    It’s a long time since I read Brian Moore but I still have a very fond memory of his work. Do you like Irish literature in general?

    Speaking of your compatriots, I have been to see Leonard Cohen in concert a couple of times. I also saw Neil Young. Ron Sexsmith too.

    Are you on Facebook?


  33. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I’ve certainly read Alistair MacLeod (before I started blogging alas) and have successfully encouraged a number of other bloggers to try his work. And I do like Irish fiction — I won’t even try to put together a list of favorites because it would be too long.

    And I am not on either Facebook or Twitter.


  34. peter Says:

    John McGahern’s more recent work is also excellent. I am especially fond of “That They May Face the Rising Sun” and his last book, “Memoir”.

    Another Irish writer you might enjoy is Dermot Healy. He is based in Sligo, not too far from John McGahern’s Leitrim.


  35. Anna Says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed this article, as I did the book itself. It has to be said, however, anyone who believes that anyone takes St. Patrick’s day more seriously than the Irish has never been to Ireland on St. Patrick’s Day!!


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