This Magnificent Desolation

Thomas O’Malley is an Irish writer living and working in America.  It’s hard to say how much my perception of his writing is coloured by his name and Irishness, but the book, it has to be said, does seem to have some definite, if ineffable, Irishness to it, in style if not in setting.

The story is set in the early to mid 80s, at first in Minnesotta and later San Francisco, tracking the life of yound Duncan.  When we meet him first, he is at an orphanage staffed by a bunch of Franciscans.  He is a child beset by otherworldly convictions and memories, coloured by the religious context of his upbringing.  He recalls his birth, where God spoke to him, with perfect clarity.  Angels are a fact of life, curiously syncretised with astronauts (those same astronauts — Aldrin, Armstrong, and the often forgotten [but fabulously Irishly named] Michael Collins — who visited the moon, that magnificent desolation).  He is a disturbed, stolidly unhappy child who finds it difficult to reconcile his own idiosyncratic, even delusory, beliefs and perceptions of the world with those of the people around him.  He is lonely and isolated and sees no reason why this situation would ever change.

This changes when he is readopted by his mother, Maggie, an extravangantly colourful drunk.  The most talented opera singer of her generation fallen to singing in dusky dives and prostitution.  A surrogate father also appears. Joshua is an African American, a Harvard graduate and a vietnam vet.  He suffers from some sort of PTSD and depersonalisation, made worse by his work in a hellish tunnel being bored under the SF Bay. These two characters are horribly doomed and self-destructive.  She tries and fails to quit the drink and to be a good mother.  Instead, Duncan seems to have to play the role of parent more often than not.  Joshua attempts to exert control over his anomic existence by joining an underground fight club.  Gruesomely battered night after night, he nonetheless continues to drift away from Duncan and from Maggie.

What plot there is, is slow, but the chapters are even shorter than those of Dan Brown and I fairly flew through the book.  The language is rich and poetic, dense and dreamy, filled with religious imagery and imbued with an Irish cadence.  Even the mechanics of dialogue support this dreamy atmosphere; O’Malley does away with quotation marks, making speech and non-speech an inseparable organic gestalt. It’s depressing stuff though.  The three of them lead exquisitely miserable lives, interspersed with moments of gentle happiness, until, eventually, Duncan, at the close of the novel, is left alone once more.

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