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Life Triumphs
By John Dicker

All Will Be Well

By John McGahern

Knopf, 320 pages, $25

John McGahern is the greatest Irish writer you’ve never heard of. His novels, like The Barracks and The Leavetaking, paint very dark, yet oddly loving portraits of Irish life in the mid-20th century. Family violence, chronic immigration, the ordinary life struggles of country people just hanging on to the fringes of respectability in a newly independent state: This is McGahern’s preferred terrain. But he’s also famous for suffering through his own government’s ban on his books that spanned from the onset of his career in the early 1960s to the end of the 1970s.

In his first memoir, All Will Be Well, McGahern calls the Ireland of his youth “a theocracy in all but name.” If anyone can say this without risk of hyperbole, it’s our author. After The Dark was banned in 1964, a bishop saw fit to also boot him from his teaching job. It was quite the controversy, since at the time it was illegal to sell a banned book, but not to have written one. When the issue was debated on the floor of the Dail (parliament), the minister for education simply stated: “When the Church decides on a course of action, it generally has a good reason for that action.”

End of discussion.

Even his union wouldn’t support him: “If it was just the auld book, maybe—maybe—we might have been able to do something for you,” he was told. “But with marrying this foreign [read: non-Catholic] woman, you have turned yourself into a hopeless case entirely.”

Despite such indignities, All Will Be Well is not a secular screed. Mostly, it’s a very personal family memoir and something of a departure for McGahern, who seldom publishes more than once a decade. Whether his motivation was to pay tribute to his mother, who died when he was 9, or to commit a graceful form of literary patricide against his abusive father, it’s not clear. Whatever the reason though, readers are in luck, for this is indeed a wonderful book.

An IRA man who found a career in the Guarda Siochana, the Irish state’s police force, Frank McGahern possessed an inability to mask his invariably self-serving intentions, and was profoundly stingy and quick to violence. Through surviving letters and his own lucid recollections, John McGahern reveals a father capable of testing the principles of any humanitarian merely by continuing to ingest oxygen. More than the regular beatings—one of which induced a cataleptic fit in his daughter—it’s the mundane acts of meanness that are the most chilling.

Upon receipt of the monthly grocery bill, for example, he’d line up his seven children and read them a complete account of everything they’d eaten. “Once four pounds is crossed you can all eat dry bread.”

Writing well may be the best revenge, but there’s little by way of triumphant anger in these pages. Not that it wouldn’t be justified. Instead, there’s merely abject astonishment in his own good fortunes. It was only because of his father’s need for approval from a local Protestant family that took an interest in him that his education was not forsaken for a clerkship at a hardware store. His own luck is not lost on McGahern, who came of age in the 1950s when more Irish people emigrated than any other decade that century. “I had become one of the privileged few who had escaped the trains and the cattle boats and was allowed to work in my own country.”

To cope, McGahern found solace in church rituals (where his father was forced to concede to an authority higher than his own), in rowing a small fishing boat on the river, and in books. It was in these solitary pleasures that a glimpse of life beyond his father’s clutches could be imagined.

This is a dark book about a time when patriarchs, policemen and priests, especially, were not to be questioned. When feelings were barely processed, much less discussed, and life, though beautiful in its simplicity, could be cold and violent. That such a dark book has a happy enough ending says much about the redemptive power of simple pleasures, whatever their source. As McGahern so gracefully puts it:

“It is from those days that I take the belief that the best of life is lived quietly,” McGahern writes, “where nothing happens but our calm journey through the day, where change is imperceptible and the precious life is everything.”

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