Monday 5 December 2016

Fitting Healy tribute marred by academia

Essays: Writing the Sky: Observations and Essays on Dermot Healy, Edited by Neil Murphy and Keith Hopper, Dalkey Archive Press, pbk, 380 pages, €37.99

John Boland

Published 14/08/2016 | 02:30

Wild man: Dermot Healy
Wild man: Dermot Healy
Writing the Sky: Observations and Essays on Dermot Healy Edited by Neil Murphy and Keith Hopper

Dermot Healy, who died in 2014 at the age of 66, had the look of a wild man and the personality to go with it, as anyone who spent a night on the town with him can vividly recall.

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There was a wildness to his literary talent, too, not least in the fact that you never quite knew what he'd do next, whether in prose, poetry or drama. And it was this sense of unpredictability that made him hard to categorise and that perhaps led him to being underrated throughout much of his career - he won few major literary awards.

Now, though, his legacy is being re-evaluated upwards and this large new anthology of essays and poems by some 40 admirers pays earnest, indeed occasionally excessive, homage to his achievement - there's a mythologising tendency in some of the pieces that doesn't quite square with either the man himself or the work he created.

That's not the case with Neil Jordan's affectionate foreword, which recalls the young Healy both as "generous and gregarious" and as having a "maddeningly tangential way of talking about things". And Timothy O'Grady, author of I Could Read the Sky (in the film adaptation of which Healy starred) remembers "wild practices and appetites, with a recklessness like someone from Dostoevsky".

Other intriguing glimpses of the man are to be found in Patrick McCabe's recollections, which offer a typically extravagant portrait of himself and Healy as pioneering outlaws in a suffocatingly conventional Ireland; and in Danny Morrison's memories of meeting him in Belfast - indeed here endeavouring to enlist him to the cause by saluting "a commanding officer of words".

And while there's an air of self-aggrandisement to some of the reminiscences, they're mostly engrossing, with interesting essays by Ronan Sheehan, Brian Leyden, Annie Proulx and Alannah Hopkin, and some of the poems are striking, too, especially 'Form' by Caroline Bracken.

This 160-page first section would have made a fine tribute both to the man and the writer. Unfortunately, it's followed by 220 pages of 'Critical Responses', whose 14 essays embody all that's worst about academic criticism and its mission to remove literature from among our greatest of pleasures and place it among our most joyless of duties.

Jargon abounds in this rarefied, tenure-seeking subworld, and so we read here of "epistemological consequences", "simplistic teleology" and "intersecting Foucauldian heterotopias", while we also learn that in Joyce's Finnegans Wake "signification and significance are constantly deferred, revealed and transposed by the novel's cyclical reconextualisation of its signs against the reader's shifting familiarity with the book's points of reference".

That's in relation to Healy's 1999 novel, Sudden Times, whose "cyclical structure... radically alters the reading experiences and the processes of signification in ways that cannot be returned to a standard linear realist retelling".

Healy would chortle at such twaddle and it's to Healy's books that the sensible reader will immediately return. There's Banished Misfortune and Other Stories, the 1982 book that first indicated his arresting talent. There's A Goat's Song (1994), the wrenching novel that confirmed his status. There's The Bend for Home'(1996), which remains among the most affecting of Irish memoirs. There's the 2010 poetry book, A Fool's Errand, about barnacle geese in his adopted Sligo. And for those who don't find it either too daunting or simply baffling, there's his final novel Long Time, No See, published in 2011.

What readers don't need are impenetrable essays by earnest commentators who, in Swift's words, "view in Homer more than Homer knew".

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