Wednesday, February 06, 2008
Our book today is Bernard MacLaverty's Cal, a lean and bullet-powerful 1983 novel set in the midst of Ireland's 'Troubles.'
Its eponymous young teenaged hero is pale and skinny with straight hair falling long into his face. He smokes and plays guitar up in his room, living as a Roman Catholic on the dole in a solidly Protestant neighborhood of Ulster (his father Shamie works in the local slaughterhouse). He spends his time largely idling - which can hardly be said for some of his friends, who're involved with the IRA and are forever scheming petty violences. They're also forever trying to involve him, and he's at heart such a friendly young man that he doesn't always refuse them, though he always wants to (the behavior of his friends - veering between obsequious wheedling and crass bullying - is perfectly captured by MacLaverty).
One key involvement happened when he was the driver on an outing in which his friends shot to death a policeman. Readers unfamiliar with the day-to-day life of Republican Ireland will find it vividly rendered in CAL - the miasmic sense of uncertainty, the clench of doubt at every sound heard outside the house at night, the fervid insularity of a persecuted minority. This atmosphere explains Cal's inability to just walk away - these are schoolmates, old friends, cronies of his father. They show up at his home, they call him by the Irish transliteration of his name - Cahal - and they remind him of some idea of loyalty.
They're helped by his essential aimlessness of his teenage life, but that aimlessness ends abruptly when Cal spots and instantly falls in love with Marcella, a new clerk at the library (again, MacLaverty's skill at conveying the sheer intemperate heat of young love is unparalleled in modern fiction).
That love - even before he (or she) allows himself to call it that - changes young Cal, enlivens him in a way that nothing else ever has. Of course the first and most obvious place this shows itself is in the house which (since the death of the saintly mother who is the first and only adamant prerequisite of all Irish fiction) he shares with his father Shamie. These domestic scenes are rendered with a fine, almost Japanese painterly minimum of brush-strokes:
On Friday afternoon the lorry dropped him off at the safer end of the street and he walked the rest, head down, tensed against the cold. He had to wait until after tea for the water to heat sufficiently for a bath. They had finished early and he was in long before his father.
When Shamie came through the door Cal had the dinner ready to serve and was singing in the kitchen, drumming on the draining board with two pliable knives. He wanted to keep the good news of his job until they were sitting eating. It would be something to talk about. A children's programme was turned low as they waited for the news.
When they sat down at the table Cal said, 'I got offered a job.'
'Good man yourself,' Shamie clapped him on the shoulder, the only part of Cal he could reach from where he sat. 'Doing what?'
'Morton's farm. Where the potato picking was.'
'What's the money like?'
'I don't know. But it's bound to be better than the dole.'
'Cheers anyway,' said his father, raising his cup of milk to him.
The father and son love each other, but it's a peculiarly Irish kind of love - i.e. composed in large part of dislike. They fight almost constantly, and MacLaverty has a perfect ear for the give and take of it. In fact, as befits an Irish writer, all his dialogue is perfect, even tossed-off lines:
After a while he heard someone squelching through the mud. He looked up and saw Cyril Dunlop walking across the yard. He was the same age as Cal's father and they knew each other from about the town. They would stand for hours on end chatting at the street corner and then Shamie would come home and say, 'That Cyril Dunlop was in every Orange march that ever there was. And believe me, Cal, that Orange Order is rotten to the core. They wouldn't give you daylight if they could keep it off you.'
The animating tragedy of the book stems from the fact that Cal was the driver on the strike that killed Marcella's husband, as he knows the instant he sees her. The tension this introduces - will he tell her? Will she hate him for it? - animates the love story and propels it forward and makes this book almost hypnotically readable.
The prose is spare almost to the point of starkness, utterly unblinking and unsentimental. And the story is resolutely small: there are no sweeping observations here about British Occupation or 'the Troubles' - merely minutely and wonderfully tuned observations of how such larger forces might twist two people in love.
CAL has been in print a long time and had many editions, one of which is still in print. We here at Stevereads whole-heartedly recommend it.