A story sans soul

The Visitors: Patrick O’Keefe


‘The Visitor’ can be summed up as an ‘Irish’ novel that tries to capture the rhythm of provincial Irish life and the experience of Irish working-class immigrants in the USA. There is no doubt that the narrative is based on the author’s authentic lived-in experience, but somehow it ends up as an unappetizing, dreary tale with too many characters and an attempt at lyricism that doesn’t quite work.

The narrative starts dramatically enough in Ann Arbor, Michigan as a homeless man appears at James Dwyer’s door to say that an old woman is lying in the street in front of the building.  James does not find the body, but he invites the hobo in, maybe out of boredom, and they get talking over coffee. The man gives his name as Walter and drops in a message: An old childhood friend from County Limerick, Kevin Lyons, wants James to visit him.  The name of Kevin opens the flood gate of childhood memories.

James’s father and Kevin’s father were best of friends. And there were complicated entanglements between members of the two families. Kevin and James’s sister Tess had some kind of a sexual encounter when they had all gone bathing in the river near their homes. Later, when James goes to Dublin to work in a pub, he meets Una, Kevin’s sister, and falls in love with her.

The story moves back and forth between the present, with James in America, and the happenings of his childhood. There are descriptions of rural life in an Irish county; scenes of cattle feeding and milking, sheds being built and a lot of Sweet Aftons being smoked. The women are busy cooking meals for their husbands and children, and putting up with boorish behaviour of men.  Later we also get glimpses of the immigrant experience of the working class as James lands up in  Boston taking up jobs as a house painter as he attends college studying English literature. He also meets Kevin there and learns that he is doing very well for himself renovating rundown houses and selling them at a neat profit.

James finally decides to meet Kevin once again after hearing about the death of Kevin’s brother Seamus for drug abuse. The meeting takes place in a retreat that Kevin has built a few miles away from Cold Spring village in New Jersey. The two friends go on a nostalgic trip down their childhood in the past as the barbecue sizzles. James meets Kevin’s daughter from his latest marriage, who is interested to hear about her father’s early life from his childhood friend. But in the end something goes horribly wrong with many strands of the narrative introduced earlier coming together in an explosive climax.

The novel tries too hard to puta stylistic spin on the narrative which doesn’t quite come off. O’Keefe writes in short, staccato sentences; but does not have the sense to select and omit wisely. There are too many details that are uninteresting and do not quite evoke the scenes the way they are meant to do. There are far too many characters – too many brothers, sisters, uncles and aunts – and you find it hard to empathize with any. Unlike someone like Roddy Doyle, O’Keefe does not have an ear for lines as they are spoken.  “She handed me the apple, but there were still strips of skin on it, and she took it back and peeled off the last of the skin and gutted out the core. Then she sliced the apple into small pieces and told me to hold my hands up. She sprinkled sugar on the pieces. The fathers were sitting at the range and talking away. She had fed them tea.” Very unlikely that two friends from a county in Ireland would reminisce about the past this way. Kevin hands James a notebook that Kevin’s father kept in his shed. It has a long diary entry of sorts without any dates or any kind of break. The piece holds some secret which is supposed to surprise and shock us. It does neither. What is worse, the language used is totally unconvincing. “Thirty five days since she died. More than touch of autumn in the breeze this morning. I clanged the door shut. Tom was by this evening and we went for a walk. Kevin and some other few young lads out of the road kicking the football and I told them to be careful with the cars coming around and the bend getting faster every year it looks like.” We feel we are reading a notebook of Patrick O’Keefe, the writer rather than Michael Lyons, the handyman.

In sum, one can say that the raw material of lived in experience is very much there, but O’Keefe fails to craft an engaging novel out of it.                                                                                                                                  

This review was first published the Sunday supplement of Deccan Herald on May 1, 2016


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