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"Sudden Times" by Dermot Healy

By Ray Pride

AUGUST 28, 2000: 

Sudden Times by Dermot Healy (Harcourt) $23

Let's say the first glory of Irish literature is the fact that a recognized artist doesn't pay any income tax. The second glory is the prose that flows free into the rest of the world.

Like other writers of matters Irish, such as gloomy Joyce, hilarious Beckett, pants-wetting funny Flann O'Brien, twisted Patrick McCabe or image-specific Neil Jordan, Dermont Healy's prose is a continuous conversation between what is spoken and recorded, and how it sounds and resounds in the head. Simple words sing in patterns at once exotic and recognizable.

In "Sudden Times," Ollie Ewing is a laborer, home from London to small Sligo. Voices people his head. He remembers convulsively. London washes over him. In his small room, his thoughts crowd in on him. There is a line in Denis Johnson's "Door Wide Open" which speaks of his protagonist, "He had the capacity to make the most ordinary things seem radiant." A beautifully cadenced thought which snugly suits Healy's words.

There is relentless poetry in details accrued: "But by night it was something else./ It's like this./ If you left the fucking window open it turns into a loudspeaker through which a town in turmoil screeched its wares... In this room I was to start a new life." But Ollie must confront the particulars of the past, as noisy, jangly and grim as what's out that window. He's been with the bad. The bad returns. There are sporadic confrontations by the real world when he is on the job, in the pub, working a market, crashing with a squat of scabrous students. "A Dutch man with wild eyes sat down with us to speak of evil." These are simple words and something happens between them in Healy's hands, a haunted breath. Words amble, circle around a thing, taking in a scene with slippery deliberateness. The plot is taut, motivations terse. Boozing is done with color. Bad fortune pierces as sharp and sudden as stepping on a nail: "The day the laundry windows steamed up, speed was put into my sandwiches in this fancy restaurant I went to. A real posh place. I went in for a toasted cheese and lost the run of things. I was brought into hospital and that was what was found in my urine. IT would have been a fucking Thursday. Always a fucking Thursday. Maybe I forgot to leave the woman a tip in the restaurant." Grudges simmer. Paranoia leaps about.

Ollie's voice always seems to leave out a detail, one which wasn't important, at least to Ollie. Of one bad job, he merely says, "Sometimes you are a beat ahead of the possibilities, things go wrong, and serendipity does not show its face. No." Observant yet woolly, worldly yet unlucky in the world, Ollie Ewing cannot but listen. He hears all. Spiels some of it back to us. There is music and drink and violence and, mostly, the word. Forget story. Listen to story, telling. Healy is a joy: his astonishing voice, clear as a bell, rings in the mind for months after you read him.

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