Maurice Harmon, review of Hero Town by Bryan MacMahon, in The Irish Times (15 Jan. 2005)

Details: Maurice Harmon, ‘Trapped in the straitjacket of a small town world’, review of Bryan MacMahon, Hero Town , in The Irish Times (15 Jan. 2005), p.12. [Available in Irish Times Archive.]

The central figure in Bryan MacMahon’s posthumous novel is Peter Mulrooney, a schoolteacher in a small town (Hero Town) and a writer who, impelled by the realisation of “finality”, wants to begin his great work, which is to memorialise the town and its inhabitants. The novel resembles a journal in its episodic and fragmentary organisation of incidents, conversations, reflections and self-analysis.

It is also an attempt by MacMahon, through Mulrooney, to understand himself. This is a complex task because his protagonist is stranded in a sea of shifting perceptions, doubt, anger, self-pity and loneliness.

Mulrooney wants to change, wants above all to have a sexual relationship with a woman, but lacks the know-how. Although he is only 40, he thinks and feels like an old man and, as the year advances, feels “an increasing sense of dark dismay”; life to him is “a banal existence of quiet desperation”. His ideas about women are absurdly outdated. He is so uptight that one wants to shake him. A few townspeople urge him to get outside the straitjacket of respectability and self-doubt. But he cannot do so.

Hero Town is not a success. Mulrooney, MacMahon’s alter ego, wants to describe “the roller coaster of the rhythms of life in a small place”, but apart from a few scenes, the novel moves sluggishly. While too self-conscious and wordy, it is knowingly Joycean in its play on language, its kaleidoscopic view of the town, its segmented structure and its use of interior monologue.

None of this might matter very much if Mulrooney’s concerns and predicament were seen to be significant, if the depiction of the town and its people were compelling. The trouble is that the contents of his mind lack depth. His self-pity becomes intrusive, his complaints lack credibility.

Bryan MacMahon once told me that the Irish writer must marry Peig Sayers to the pilot of the jumbo jet. That put his case exactly. He knew the problem of being too local, too attracted to the colourful and not being able to universalise.

In the course of his career he moved from the folksy style of his early stories and novels, such as The Lion Tamer (1949) and Children of the Rainbow (1952), and wrote a more universal type of story in The Tallystick and Other Stories (1994) and a measured autobiography, The Master (1992).

He was a lovely man who delighted in people and was a great talker. When we happened to be in Ballyferriter on holiday he advised me to listen to the children: “They have the purest Irish.”

While I kicked ball on the strand, he rambled about the town to meet the people. We went to the Blaskets and on the way met the legendary local Kerry character, Pound, who said “ múcht an gluaisteán” (“quench the car”). MacMahon chuckled over that remark for days. He loved people, he loved language, he loved life.

In Hero Town he has made a great but largely unsuccessful effort to embody his view of existence in a complex and coherent manner.

[Maurice Harmon’s collection of poetry, A Doll with Two Backs, is published by Salmon; Hero Town by Bryan MacMahon Brandon, 250pp. €19.99]

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