Saturday 24 June 2017

Review: Falling out of Heaven by John Lynch

Fourth Estate/ Harper Collins, €12.99

John Lynch is a well-known actor from the North (Cal, In The Name of the Father, Sliding Doors) but he's also a writer and this is his second novel. The hero of the book is named after an angel but behaves nothing like one. Gabriel O'Rourke is a youngish man with such a passion for alcohol that he loses his mind. Forced against his will into a treatment unit, Gabriel's choice is redemption or destruction.

"You've been in a war," a shrink tells him. "And it's the worst kind. . . a war against yourself."

O'Rourke doesn't enter his dark night of the soul gently. He fights it ferociously because he prefers the saturation of drinking himself into amnesia, no matter what the cost. He despises people who want him to lead a so-called normal life, especially his counsellor, Thaddeus. His wife, child and sister have given up on him, but he doesn't give a toss.

So far, so what? There's an almost gothic tedium in the subject of alcohol and the Irish psyche and when you mix in dysfunctional families, especially Northern Irish, you risk a cliché cereal. But this isn't just another story about an Irish drunk. It's a gritty, unflinching journey into the stuff of being a man.

Lynch lets Gabriel do the talking, which gives readers a first-person voice struggling to deal with what's happening to him. That here-and-now quality makes for some intense scenes. Gabriel has to talk about it because he's in treatment, which lets Lynch write his story as flashbacks. What is it Gabriel wants to forget?

Location is almost incidental to the human drama because Gabriel hasn't much interest in the world, although he can't avoid the background noise. You could make more of it but Lynch lets it lie.

Born into pre-ceasefire Newry, Gabriel's mother was a religious zealot and his father a brutal alcoholic, whose darkness spreads like a claw.

The mother's incantatory pleas to God cast a holy shroud that suffocates her two children, Gabriel and Ciara. Their father's unpredictability means the family are walking on eggshells, with no one naming the various elephants in the room. Sex, or the lack of it. Violence. Incest.

Gabriel joins a gang who terrorise a female neighbour. He earns his hard man credentials by single-handedly murdering her dog, to his cost.

"I had killed the dreaming child, the one who had talked of the courtship of butterflies," Gabriel says, "who had opened himself to the world like a daisy reaching for the sun."

Respectability beckons, but demons purr underneath. He becomes a teacher and marries a "nice" girl, but on the night of his son's birth, he turns his back on intimacy when he pays a prostitute to service him. Something won't let him love.

Lynch documents Gabriel's fall in a series of vignettes leading from embarrassing to downright shocking. Nothing stops him -- not the sight of his child watching him beat up his wife nor the humiliation of being pissed and outrageous on a school trip.

His sister and her husband give him shelter but he returns the favour by getting so drunk he feels like sexually abusing their young daughter. By the time he crawls through a Drogheda gutter panicked with delusions of seeing the devil, he's lost everything.

Lynch's interest in life's key moments showed in Torn Water, his debut fiction, where he explored forensically a 17-year-old boy's psychic crisis. In ways, Gabriel is the next step on this exploration of masculinity and what it costs to be a man. Here, a clunkier narrative structure slows down his real ability to write passion and pain, so that there's a too-neat resolution between this primal struggle and the happy-ever-after suggested from the book's first pages.

Irish Independent

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