Gerard Donovan is adept at creating offbeat, wintry worlds. His characters have a skewed relation to reality but a flair for deep-seated reflection. The settings of his first two novels - an unspecified locale in eastern Europe in Schopenhauers Telescope and Salt Lake City in Doctor Salt - are likewise quirky and symbolically redolent. Julius Winsome, Donovans third fiction, shifts terrain once again to a borderland in northern Maine.
Paradoxically, the fictional domains of this free-ranging author are evocative because of their oblique quality. Their suggestive allegorical import is of more weight than their precision. Donovan, moreover, belongs to a new generation of global Irish writers, including Colum McCann, Emer Martin, and Michael Collins, whose fictions seem to be free of geographical or generic constraints. Locations, timeframes and literary antecedents can be elected at will and are no longer predetermined.
The protagonist of this novel lives in isolation in a cabin on the edge of a forest and leads a life that seems a throwback to the existence of the early pioneers. His mainstays are his dog, Hobbes, and a large library of books bequeathed to him by his father. The deliberate shooting of his dog initiates the story and catapults Winsome into a crisis from which he never recovers.
Donovans spare but poetic style captures the intense anguish of grief and the permutations of loss. At one point Winsome reflects that now he knows what gone really means: It means no one sees how you live, what you do. However, the novel complicates this fable of elemental emotion by turning it into a saga of revenge and of spiralling violence.
The Enfield rifle with which Winsome pursues and executes the supposed killers of his dog is a legacy from his grandfather and a relict of the first World War. Winsomes father in turn fought in the second World War. As a result of his experiences he abjured violence but still taught his son how to use the inherited rifle. In tracing this lineage between fathers and sons, Donovan intimates that violence is endemic in the modern period. The seeming pacifism of Winsome and his father does not dissociate them from the underlying brutality of their times. Individuals in Donovans narrative are inescapably bound up in historical patterns outside their control.
Hence, the key conflicts of the novel result from the disproportion of human emotion: the wrenching event of the loss of a dog turns the hero into a remorseless serial killer. We are made privy to his chilling calculations as he stalks the hunters in his locality all of whom are now tainted with guilt in his eyes. While his isolation and pain might earn him the sympathies of the readers, his pursuit of revenge divides them from him.
Winsome draws upon the resources of his fathers library in his bloody and misguided campaign. He uses the colourful and abstruse Shakespearean vocabulary that he had learnt as a child to depict his antagonists and draws on words such as amort, churl and garboil to capture the intensity of his feelings. This archaic and borrowed language only serves to highlight the impossibility of negotiating justice. It also points up his strained grasp of reality. Despite his bookishness, culture merely enhances his alienation and feeds his paranoid search for a perpetrator.
Julius Winsome can be read as an oblique commentary on contemporary American politics and modern society and as an allegory tracing the thin dividing lines between humanity and savagery. The controlled compression of Donovans finely etched narrative, however, means that its moral reckonings remain open and ambiguous. This tale of loneliness, pain and terrible retribution set in the remote borderlands of northern Maine insinuates us skilfully into the conflicting emotions of its protagonist. It also transports us to a geographical locale of small towns and snow-laden forests and landscapes that are sharply observed and symbolically potent. Julius Winsome is at once an accomplished and haunting story for our times and a timeless fable of loss, isolation and violence.
[Anne Fogarty is professor of Joyce studies at University College Dublin and academic director of the Dublin James Joyce Summer School.]