I'm very suspicious of charismatic holy men and compelling orators, and yes, shining statesmen... But I mean my heart goes out to them too because if I didn't recognise my own vulnerability to that charm I wouldn't be talking about it at all."
So said Leonard Cohen in the 1988 RTÉ radio programme How the Heart Approaches What It Yearns, produced and conducted by one John MacKenna. The two-part radio documentary-interview sought to witness the work of Cohen in all its poeticism, bathos and bruised romance through a theological viewfinder. Cohen's Story of Isaac naturally cropped up, with its dark portent of a man making the ultimate sacrifice following a supposedly divine vision.
Leap forward 19 years and MacKenna, a native of Co Kildare, has bid farewell to the late Cohen (the pair became friends and corresponded regularly) and carried some of these ideas into a short-story collection laced with enough melancholy and wincing humour of which the Canadian laureate would most surely have approved.
Kurt Vonnegut's eighth rule of short-story writing was to "give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible". This is confidently shattered by MacKenna who teases out details and clues at a pace that betrays his years as a playwright and actor. The effect is a slightly woozy quality throughout, where a faint echo from one story can drift into another and harbingers glimpsed earlier can slyly confirm themselves only in a story's concluding paragraphs.
This very much applies to MacKenna's own "charismatic holy man", the Captain. His life and death are ciphered through these 13 tales about individuals who have somehow been affected by the mysterious cult leader's demise. Locations are quietly alluded to across the Northern Hemisphere but the memories directly concerning the Captain all give off a whiff of the US heartland as seen through a grainy Super-8 nostalgia.
This is not quite the murderous idolatry of a Charles Manson, however, and instead seems to be more the search for hope and definition through the same human need to serve that Bob Dylan once sang about. We know that after being assassinated in a military ambush, the Captain's followers took his body out to a desert. There, his earlier words at a final feast (think bodies, bread, blood and wine) were taken literally by his grieving underlings before he was laid to rest. Much of this sounds clearly familiar but the feeling is that the Captain could be as much a spiritual guru as he could a revolutionary.
Deep wounds, some debilitating, have been left in the scattered disciples now trying to upcycle their lives as if they never needed the Captain. In some of these tales, he is a barely detectable whisper behind a character's eyes. Take 'Absent Children', a tale of a farmhand interloping into a household deeply scarred with hurt. It is one of a few brilliantly vivid mini-sagas here that somehow sit snuggly into the post-Captain world without really telling us much about him. Elsewhere, however, he is in the very air that the characters breathe, be they bar owners, photojournalists, used-car salesmen or choirmasters.
There is the keening desperation of the devout in many of these finely crafted and disparate voices, while in others an emptiness within is forced to continue unsated or with fingers crossed that another answer awaits them out there on the road. 'My Beloved Son' sees a man make belated amends, recasting himself as a "good" father to his young son, only to discover with horrific clarity that "goodness is not always enough".
In fact, the tune-changing innocence of children is a theme that litters Once We Sang Like Other Men. For the protective father holidaying with his daughter in 'Sacred Heart', she gives him sanctuary and distraction from old nightmares. A Russian music teacher in 'The Angel Said' is pondering his brother's disappearance after the Captain's death while also trying to be there for his own adoring pupils.
Meanwhile, in 'Resurrection', a writer is found dead in a cabin in Canada at Easter time and his beleaguered wife flies out to repatriate the body to Ireland. No trace of his essence is found at the scene of his death, save some words on a page speaking to a companion in another world (presumably, the slain Captain). With Christ's resurrection a seasonal topic, the mother must now try to explain the concept of death to a very young son more intent on playing hide-and-seek around his father's coffin ("Jesus came back. The man said Daddy will come back too").
As Cohen warned, words, however compelling, emerge as false idols in themselves for some of these lost souls, offering little of the solace they promise. The priest in 'The Word' rakes over the old coals of a deceased lover and thinks to himself from the pulpit that if there is a God, he probably "hates the sound of the organ". By the close, he is cursing the same types of pious platitudes that infected the boy in 'Resurrection', their worth "tested beyond endurance".
"Reading books doesn't make you a better person," the dead-eyed farmer's wife seethes in 'Absent Children'. "I used to read a lot of books and they had nothing to offer when it mattered. They were just mountains of letters…"
These, of course, are the irrational furies of those who have been knocked off their perch by life - we all know that words are, in fact, everything. Words are enough to bring rapture or sanctity or stimulation, if they are assembled in the right way. Throughout this subtle reworking of the tale of Lazarus, MacKenna displays his implicit understanding of this. Disciples are pulled via an almost catatonic gravitation back to thoughts of the fallen healer purely because his "words and images drew you in, taking you to the place about which he spoke… they had the power to render the present obsolete and make what he was saying the only reality that mattered". The Captain would surely have made an excellent short-story writer.
Once We Sang Like Other Men
New Island, pbk, 240 pages, €11.95