I remembered it as heart-warming, something to read when the "sessions of sweet silent thought" bring memories of "precious friends hid in death's dateless night".
I was wrong. Oh, it has a happy ending. The last 3 pages. The rest is a poetic, magnificent but absolutely heartbreaking lament of lost love and missed opportunities, of the sheer pain of being human, of feeling, of loss and sadness. The book wouldn't have its power if it didn't have this catalog of sorrows and mistakes. That's why it's so fricking good: the last three pages make you weep precisely because of the preceding 380. And I did weep, from happiness. After being plunged into sorrow on the long road to this ending.
The quick summary of the novel is that it's about two boys from South Boston, two working class Irish. One, Petey Harding is special. He sees the world differently. He's an outsider. The other is Danny O'Connor, who is Petey's best friend, his bestest friend, and who realises as the novel progresses that Petey is home, and that everywhere he goes, Petey has been there before him. You can read my earlier review here and an earlier post about the book here.
Beautiful, stunning writing. So good, it made my sorrow at the stories great and small of the people in the novel even harder to bear. I had to keep on putting the book aside for a while because I could not bear to see the pain of Hayes' characters -- the long years of suffering which await our heroes, and the suffering of all the people in their lives, the secondary characters in the novel. Danny's mother, and her guilt. Petey and his eccentricities and loneliness (and before you reject Hayes' picture as unrealistic and too bleak, let me assure you that it is very realistic -- my own childhood was like that.) Danny's heartbreaking realisation, too late, that he loves Petey. And his drive home after he's had an evening out with Petey and Petey's new boyfriend, Paul. Heart-wringing. Danny's encounter with Michael Shea, who is gay and can't live with it, and who takes his own life, bringing back the past. Donnie, Petey's brother, whose story from that past is revealed. The horror and agony of this whole episode! The 8-year-old Danny meets in the Norfolk library whose mother is a whore. Even the stray dogs. All wonderfully described, all feeling the pain of life.
Of course, to have compassion you have yourself to have suffered. How can you know what loneliness, loss, failure, guilt and grief feel like till you have experienced them? So Danny becomes this lovely, kind, thoughtful and lovable man because of what he endures. But also because of Petey, because Petey stops him turning sour at life. Suffering and loss and loneliness can take you the other way, to bitterness and cynicism, only too easily. In fact that happens for a while to Petey himself, though in the best "happy ever after" tradition, his light shines through at last. He never gives up the hope that he can make things better, even if just by a little. Is that the definition of an optimist?
This time I read it more slowly, savoured every word-picture, every description, every perfectly-painted cameo of working-class Irish from the wrong side of town. Of the mindless machoism of the teenage boys. Of the unthinking acceptance by them of their roles in life as nothings at the bottom of the economic and social pile, fit only to be workmen or marines protecting the wealth of the rich. It was like watching my children or dear friends suffer the pangs of first love and loss, of understanding the humiliations of life. I cared even more about Hayes' people this time round than I did the first hectic read, when I was so engrossed in the story I hastened to the end. This reading plunged me into melancholy and sorrow, a mood I have yet to shake off.
The finest writing, wonderfully convincing portraits of people and situations. But now I need something to lift me out of this valley of sorrow. And lesser writers won't do it. Anger would. But whom am I to be angry with, what to be angry at? Danny and Petey's problems -- and those of their brothers and mothers -- are not just because of homophobia. They lie at the roots of the human condition. What we are is what we are. Life is the way it is. The sensible response is "get over it". Yet I cannot.
I can't bring myself to read Hayes' collection of short stories called This Thing Called Courage. I have read the first story, Regular Flattop, but that was enough to break my heart. So the rest will have to wait until I'm stronger. Once -- when I was young -- I would have had no problem reading it, painful or no, but I dunno. These days, as I have got older, and endured more, I have found that previously suffered sorrow and loss makes other people's suffering harder to bear, even as it makes your own easier. It seems that when you experience a new sorrow it connects with all the others, whereas a new happiness is unique and self-contained. When someone you love dearly dies, it's impossible ever again to be easy about new sadness. You know that the universe is not to be trusted, that nothing is safe. To read something as well written and heart-rending as these books makes me think of those I know who are in pain; of my own dead friends and family; of the way young hope and energy is destroyed by life; of making shift and making do; of the lonely and the outsiders and the lost. I pity the 12 year-old who was me (without oddly enough pitying myself now -- that me is a different person.) I read about a married guy who is so guilty about his gay feelings that he wants to kill himself and I feel so sad, so filled with compassion and sorrow.
Perhaps if I was younger this would all be easier. A young man has his whole life ahead of him. He still believes in all the good stuff. Call it happy ever after. As I get closer to the end of my life, I don't believe any more. I wait for the hammer blows of fate. I know they're coming. That's what life is. There is no certainty. You can make a dear friend. And lose him. You can work hard at your marriage. And your wife can walk away. You can try to be a good father. And you can fail. You believe at 25 or 30 or even 35 that you will make enough money, that your marriage will be a success, that you will always have friends and will never be lonely. But things will go wrong. Because they do. All the planning in the world can't stop fate intervening -- as Danny says when he realises that Petey has found someone else to love, and this twist of fate reveals exactly what it is he wanted, when it's too late to have it.
There is an uncertainty which lies at the heart of things. So I give thanks every time something good happens. When my wife's car turns into the driveway, I rejoice. Because after our recent major car crash, I am afraid for her on the roads. I don't assume she will return. I expect the police visit, the phone call. When it doesn't happen, I am so happy. Sounds mad, but these days I live from hour-to-hour, day-to-day, expecting the worst and glad when it doesn't happen. The only cure, the only fix for all this potentially bad stuff is love. Love one another as I have loved you. Of that I am certain. Don't label the love, say it's like this, or like this. Don't analyse it to death. Just be glad you have it, and in thanks, offer it to others, so that they can find the courage and strength to endure fate's vagaries.
And no pretty picture today. I'm sick of the gay obsession with looks and sex, with hot tight butts, bulging pectorals and large cocks. There are more important things in life.