Derek Hand, ‘Sharing the Wonder of Words’ [review of Find the Lady], in The Irish Times (6 Sept. 2008), Weekend, p.11.

The stories in Tom MacIntyre’s new collection are linked by a playful, knowing narrator

For over 30 years, Tom Mac Intyre’s literary milieu has been ferociously earthy and often strangely dark. It has, too, been a world revolving on an axis of the absurdly humorous: his vision always alive to the awry moment or oblique conjunction.

His often innovative approach has been most associated with the theatrical space, which perhaps is best suited to his self-conscious emphasis on the delights of performance in the linguistic and physical spheres. Mac Intyre has always been willing to challenge his audience’s expectations in terms of conventional form, to bend the rules of genre, in his playful efforts to get at the heart of the stories he tells. Many might not appreciate these exertions, but none certainly can remain unmoved: his is writing that demands a response.

Find the Lady is Mac Intyre’s latest work of fiction: a compilation of short stories, though the appellation “short story” seems far too explicit. Gnomic ruminations would seem more appropriate, but even such a description fails to finally fix what is offered in this collection. Such elusiveness is an integral element of Mac Intyre’s intention here: the “find” of the title points to the work the reader must expend in order to gain entry into the author’s idiosyncratic imagination.

While there is division between the individual stories and grouping of stories, the collection is held together by a unifying narrator. It is a voice at once quirky and quick, speaking in a language that ranges from the colloquial tones of Cavan to the more austere formalities fitting some of the Greek themes and personages that lurk within the pages. Knowledge is presumed on the part of the reader and there are very few explanations - in fact none - as to the who, the what or the where of any of the action.

Besides the Greek references, there are glimpses of Irish authors such as Joyce and Jonathan Swift and characters - real or imagined - one presumes are from Mac Intyre’s own life interwoven through the narratives.

Certain individuals and moods return again and again in various guises as each snippet flits from fleeting impression to luminous moment.

It is the narrator, though, who dominates and controls the proceedings: his playfulness and knowingness generating a kind of dialogue and conflict with himself. His easy access to and acquaintance with all these cultural allusions is an act of supreme possession and ownership. Having the Queen of Sheba or Salome speak with an Irish rural twang breaks down the supposed barriers between traditions and times, showing up the universal similarities that bind people together in a common experience.

At times action, character, and place disappear as a flirtatious linguistic virtuosity comes to the fore. Words are the magic elements of literary creation and undoubtedly Mac Intyre wants us to share his awareness of their wonder as he holds them aloft for all to see and relish. This wordplay can obscure rather than enlighten, though, and so whatever truth or knowledge these pieces might embody remains just beyond consciousness, maddeningly beyond grasp.

When he does choose to allow the reader behind this contrived facade there are quiet profundities to be discovered. “Telemachus”, with brilliantly powerful brevity, captures the hurt of the son abandoned. And the story “Goodbye” demonstrates the author’s ability to match expression with emotion. So too with Familiar Stranger which makes private loss and grief something that can be communicated and understood.

In a way Mac Intyre’s pose is that of the Yeatsian wild old wicked man: he will tell his story or stories in his own inimitable fashion and damn the begrudgers who seek easy answers to difficult questions. It may be that the reader should not take any of this too seriously, for in Tom Mac Intyre’s writing the farcical is never too far away. It is as if at the heart of these stories are the essentials of some great cosmic joke.

The danger, however, is that so deliberately inscrutable is Mac Intyre’s method that this joke’s contours remain largely impenetrable for the reader. We might laugh, but we’re not sure at what we laugh, and a vague and uneasy sense lingers that the joke might just be on us.

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