Friday, March 31, 2006

RIP John McGahern

Irish novelist John McGahern died, at age 71; the New York Times has a detailed obit.

In honor of McGahern, here are a few paragraphs from the novel The Barracks (1962), which I was just flipping through this afternoon between meetings with students. The protagonist, Elizabeth, has discovered she probably has breast cancer:

They droned into the Apostle's Creed. Then Our Fathers and Hail Marys and Glory be to the Fathers were repeated over and over in their relentless monotony, without urge or passion, no call of love or answer, the voices simply murmuring away in a habit or death, their minds not on what they said, but blank or wandering or dreaming over their own lives.

Elizabeth's fingers slipped heedlessly along the brown beads. No one noticed that she'd said eleven Hail Marys in her decade. She had tried once or twice to shake herself to attention and had lapsed back again.

She felt tired and sick, her head thudding, and she put her hands to her breasts more than once in awareness of the cysts there. She knelt with her head low between the elbows in the chair, changing position for any distraction, the words she repeated as intrustive as dust in her mouth while the pain of weariness obtruded itself over everything that made up her consciousness.

She knew she must see a doctor, but she'd known that months before, and she had done nothing. She'd first discovered the cysts last August as she dried herself at Malone's Island, a bathing-place in the lake, not more than ten minutes through the meadows; and she remembered her fright and incomprehension when she touched the right breast again with the towel and how the noise of singing steel from the sawmill pierced every other sound in the evening.

What the doctor would do was simple. He'd send her for a biopsy. She might be told the truth or she might not when they got the results back, depending on them and on herself. If she had cancer she'd be sent for treatment. She had been a nurse. She had no illusions about what would happen.

Pretty dark, eh? But McGahern was into the darkness -- and no solace in the Church, damnit. The final paragraph of the Times obituary pretty much encapsulates his world-view:

Acknowledging that many readers and critics found his work pessimistic, if not depressing, he offered a joke: "My favorite optimist," he said, "was an American who jumped off the Empire State Building, and as he passed the 42nd floor, the window washers heard him say, 'So far, so good.' "

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