Saturday 25 November 2017

Books: Secret diaries of a missing Taoiseach

Fiction: Bishop's Delight, Patrick McGinley, New Island, pbk, 212 pages, €12.95

Genius: Patrick McGinley's 1978 novel Bogmail is in the same bracket as works by Joyce or Flann O'Brien.
Genius: Patrick McGinley's 1978 novel Bogmail is in the same bracket as works by Joyce or Flann O'Brien.
Bishop's Delight by Patrick McGinley
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

Donegal writer Patrick McGinley was unknown to me until three years ago, when I reviewed the reissue of his 1978 book Bogmail. Shamefully, he was unknown to the general public too.

I wrote then that this was proof artistic success is less down to merit than random luck: Bogmail is possibly the finest Irish novel I've ever read, and McGinley an exceptional writer. It deserves to be bracketed with the works of Joyce or (his strongest Irish influence, in my opinion) Flann O'Brien.

Another McGinley novel, 1983's Foggage, was heralded by an exceedingly well-read English friend as her favourite book. (She refused to lend me her only copy! Quite right, too.)

Now heading for 80, McGinley continues to write. New Island published a new novel, Cold Spring, in 2013, and a memoir, That Unearthly Valley, two years prior. The same house now presents his latest fiction, Bishop's Delight.

Long-serving Taoiseach Jim Maguire, on a fishing trip at his Connemara cottage, disappears. The boat is found, without oars or Jim. Journalists Kevin Woody - who's known the Taoiseach for years - and Tony Sweetman lead the hunt.

Has the Taoiseach drowned? Did he sneak away to a new life under an assumed name? A woman claims to have spotted him in Paris. Rumours circulate that Maguire and close friend Bill MacBride were involved in financial chicanery.

Along the way, Woody rekindles an old friendship with Maguire's wife - widow? - Anna, his first crush who'd left him for Jim decades before. He also tries to maintain his tottering relationship with Jane. Anna discovers her husband's private diaries, which reveal a secret second life of sexual adventuring. And a young woman called Louise - also a former fling of Woody's - who may be a "working girl", claims to have evidence of Jim in flagrante, and wants Woody to help write her memoirs.

By that description, and given the brilliance of Bogmail, Bishop's Delight should have been great. However, while it's not bad, it's also somehow unsatisfactory.

For starters, the novel feels quite dated - as if it should have been set a decade ago, and was written three decades ago. There are frequent references to the Celtic Tiger, an unbroken spell of prosperity, how the nation's values have changed and become more crass and grasping. (Maguire even talks about DeValera-era Ireland as though this is but a generation past, as opposed to three or four.)

The Woody character is over-familiar, and didn't work for me as the main fulcrum. The lone-wolf writer, eking out a living in his shabby flat, railing against the world's venality and superficiality, drinking a lot, unable to maintain a long-term relationship: while Woody feels plausible, we've seen this character many times before. Jim was actually more interesting for me. A mixture of Enda and Bertie, he's an intelligent man in a stupid world, a people-pleasing chameleon who craves authenticity, a man of some principles who's too willing to compromise.

I'd like to have spent more time with Maguire, less with Woody. And their status as "frenemies", intriguingly teased early in the novel, is never really followed up.

Having said that, there's some good stuff here. Some of Bishop's Delight is very funny; I winced and laughed simultaneously at the line: "There must be a special place in hell for theologians and literary critics."

And there's a lot of lovely writing. Here's Woody on Maguire's laboured, dull 'official' journals: "What (it) lacked was imagination, the gift of metaphor that, with a single whip-crack, can weld two incongruous images or ideas and create a brand new universe."

The novel's biggest fault, I suppose, is that not much happens - and the characters and dialogue are too clichéd and flat to compensate for this. It probably doesn't help that I can't avoid comparing it to his classic work.

I thought, when reading Bogmail, that McGinley was close to genius, on the basis of that one book alone. I haven't changed that view, but couldn't recommend Bishop's Delight as indispensable. Buy Bogmail instead, for guaranteed rewards.

Darragh McManus' novels include Shiver the Whole Night Through and The Polka Dot Girl

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