(Turtle Point Press, 2011)
It is 1999 in South Boston, and the streets leading to tragedy are paved with memories of tears and ghosts. In Edward J. Delaney’s second novel we meet six residents varying in age, temperament, and voice, all on separate paths, some of which are seemingly destined to collide. A long-widowed mother tries to rekindle something of the bond she once shared with her 13-year-old boy. A townie alcoholic tries to sail straight under the employ of a millionaire philanthropist who enlists him to transcribe a very personal and private memoir. A teenage girl escapes her suburban purgatory to move in with an older boyfriend. And a local priest nears his retirement from parish work—an occasion heralded both by his haunting memories of older days and the slow revelation that his is a memory haunting others.
Delaney’s prose is smooth throughout, rhythmic and relentless in its pursuit of the heartbeat behind the words, the introspective torture that looms beyond nervous breathing, twitchy hands, and that display of everyday yet inimitable dementia to which we can give no proper name. He wrestles with each character, strives to pin them long enough to match with the right adjective, the perfect degree of candor, then lets them off the mat in anxious anticipation of what they will do next. And when the fateful stars of his style and syntax align just right, the page glistens with poetic charisma.
The story’s action is slow in some parts, but compensated for by a deeper probing into psychosis and the schematics of uphill battle plans. There is a close third-person narration throughout, which alternates perspective depending on the title character of the particular chapter. In scenes when more than one of the core six characters appear, however, the close narrative tends to jump from mind to mind; the result is off-putting.
In spite of that, Delaney does a tremendous job with the different voices, spanning a modest estimate of 50 years in age. In one chapter, we see the fatherless boy, petrified and insecure, hip-deep in situations he cannot possibly fathom and answering abrasive questions with anxious wonderment (“Please, sir, I want some more!”). Ten pages later, Jimmy is hung over again, debating self-worth and the silver lining of tragedy; then later, a mother yearns, in the throes of a helpless breakdown, for any semblance of peace. The unmistakably Irish architect of these perspectives jumps effortlessly from character to character, brain to heart, motivation to instinct, love to fear.
The constantly changing narrative leaves the reader in suspense of how and when the stories will interweave—bad if you can see it coming, modestly effective if you cannot (which is almost exclusively the case). Readers will find themselves eager to return to their favorite story, which is guaranteed to change with every plot twist. Descriptions convey the old school grittiness of Southie and even some of its charm, but more of the trademark dialect and inflection would only enhance the authenticity.
No one character is tied to all the others directly, but they are connected, pragmatically if not serendipitously. In the grander scheme of the neighborhood web, we are offered a theme of virtue and vice, neither avoidable in Southie, both empowered to take or save one life or many. The suffering endured by these six people seems ameliorative; they are learning in their pain. Some heed the lessons of their misfortune while others, deservingly or otherwise, fall deeper into the cracks of a Broken Irish society.