A fine thriller emerges from a flood of adverbs and adjectives
Debut novelist Paul Lynch has created a work of distinction, says John Boland
When asked how he achieved his lithe and spare prose style, the great crime writer Elmore Leonard said it was really quite simple – at the end of each day he revised what he'd just written "and whenever I come across an adjective I strike it out".
Indeed, sometimes it seems that writers belong to either of two categories – those who strike out adjectives, adverbs and other descriptive signifiers as redundant clutter and those who put them in at every conceivable opportunity.
On the evidence of Red Sky in Morning, first-time novelist Paul Lynch is a great putter-in, the opening page alone having more adjectives, adverbs, similes and metaphors than you'll find in an entire Leonard book.
Night sky is "black", morning's "crack of light" has a "crimson spill", trees "let slip the mantle of darkness", their "fingers of leaves" catching the "goldening rays" of light, while "wobbled glass" reveals "rivulets of shifting purple".
This, as Kenneth Tynan famously said of Brendan Behan, is language "out on a spree, ribald, dauntless and spoiling for a fight" and it's clearly what has excited Booker-winning novelist Sebastian Barry, whose book-jacket blurb praises Lynch for a "masterpiece" written in a "new and wonderful language".
Others may think back to John Millington Synge and to a tradition of Irish writers who (quoting Tynan again) saw it as their mission to go against a meek English literary grain by spending words "like sailors".
Certainly, you get the unmistakable sense here of a young novelist flexing his linguistic muscles and showing what he can do with them.
By contrast, the book's storyline is one of stripped-down simplicity, impoverished hero Coll fleeing the Donegal of the 1830s after a lethal confrontation with the son of a landowner and hunted by the landowner's implacable agent all the way to the railroads of Philadelphia.
Indeed, despite the linguistic flourishes, the story has the momentum of a really good thriller – indeed, so expertly paced that you haven't time to consider how little you're being told about Coll himself, who comes across more as someone to whom things happen than as a fully-developed character.
You learn even less about his relentless nemesis, Faller, who's simply evil incarnate, a terrifying killing machine much like the Javier Bardem character in No Country for Old Men or a one-man version of the unceasing posse that pursued Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
There are other echoes, too. The middle section's arduous transatlantic crossing recalls Joseph O'Connor's Star of the Sea and Colm Tóibín's Brooklyn, while the notion of hostile forces following their quarry from Ireland to America is familiar from Roddy Doyle's The Last Roundup and Sebastian Barry's On Canaan's Side.
Yet such is Lynch's narrative assurance that his novel survives such comparisons and achieves its own kind of distinction. Certainly, there's a real writer here, even if he could lose a few adjectives and adverbs.