Eve Patten, review of The Keepers of Truth by Michael Collins, in The Irish Times (26 Feb. 2000) [ Weekend Review].

Limerick-born Michael Collins made his name as a writer in 1998 with Emerald Underground, the story of an illegal immigrant lost in the free-fall of contemporary America. That novel’s success lay partly in its narrative voice - a breezy, Irish-American vernacu!ar which pulled the reader along at a cracking pace - so the very different style adopted in The Keepers of Truth is surprising. Gone is the quick-fire colloquialism, and in its place comes a slow, lugubrious prose, weighted with dark imagery and building into an intense and moody thriller.

Set in the early 1980s, in the scorched badlands of the deep South, the novel deals with the response of a small-town community to the disappearance of a local farmer whose son, Ronny Lawton - bull-necked, tattooed, and packed full of steroids - is the prime suspect for his murder.

The case re-energises the disaffected staff on the town’s newspaper, The Daily Truth, but the initial promise of a scoop for Bill, the young writer covering the story, gradually translates into an obsession with Lawton and his estranged wife. As the crime casts its shadow on the lives of his news paper colleagues and on the nightmarish reverberations of his own father’s suicide, it also begins to take on a symbolic dimension.

From Bill’s relentlessly metaphysical perspective, it becomes symptomatic of a confused, hysterical nation, an America still traumatised by Vietnam and now sweating out the long weekend between the end of industrial cohesion and the beginnings of post-Fordist Reaganomics. The gruesome death of old man Lawton, woven into a landscape of broken trailers, redundant machinery and a population stagnating on fast food, marks a desperate hiatus in a 20th century dream gone sour.

Occasionally, perhaps, the protagonist’s speculations on this subject merge uneasily into authorial pontification, but generally the balance between story and social diagnosis is well mastered. Collins is a clever writer, but not an alienating one. His style is appropriately allusive; the de rigueur Chandlerese (“It was one of those storms that lets men breathe easy …”) combines with a gesture to Steinbeck and perhaps a hint of Annie Proulx to lay the right foundations for his own distinctive voice, which comes through in some terrific writing, particularly the superb setpieces [sic] on the torpor of the, American Rust-Belt. Thoroughly edgy, thoroughly enjoyable, The Keepers of Truth is an impressive performance from a rich and unpredictable talent.

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