When two people who have never met mention an obscure Irish author to a third person in the space of two weeks, the third person, who, in this case, happens to be me, may well have a tendency to become curious about the obscure Irish author and pick up a couple of his books. In this case, the obscure Irish author was Flann O’Brien, and I have Dana Resente (the brains behind the wonderful Montgomery County Community College Writers Conference) and Sheldon Brivic to thank for suggesting him to me, though “thank” may not be the exact word I’m looking for. Perhaps I should simply hold them responsible.
The first work I read by O’Brien was his posthumously published The Third Policeman. Shelly Brivic recommended it, but Dana Resente warned me against it. Clearly, I had no choice but to find out for myself whether or not this was a good read. As it turns out, they were both right. The Third Policeman is definitely not for everyone; the plot is fairly nonsensical and revolves around a dead man’s quest to come to terms with his own death (more or less). Throughout the proceedings, O’Brien’s whimsical flights of fancy prove alternately ingenious and maddening. On one hand, there’s a fairly lengthy (if slightly veiled) meditation on the folly of Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: where Keats would have us believe that unheard melodies are sweeter than their audible counterparts, O’Brien takes the conceit to such ridiculous extremes that the reader has no choice but to believe that the sharpest needle is that which never touches the skin. Then there’s the elevator ride to eternity where one can find one’s weight in gold but can never take it home. And, of course, there’s also the danger of becoming one with one’s bicycle. A truly bizarre book, The Third Policeman is part David Lynch, part James Joyce and part Bob Dylan (in a John Wesley Harding/”Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest” kind of way). Worth a glance if you’re into the absurd.
The Poor Mouth is not quite as absurd as The Third Policeman, but it’s equally funny. In this one, O’Brien takes aim at all of the tropes (or perhaps “cliches” is a better term) of Irish literature. His Ireland is the land of unhappy children, leaky schools, angry headmasters, and pigs who get mistaken for storytellers. As a satirist par excellence, O’Brien is well aware of the fact that he’s dealing in cliches, as evidenced by his narrator’s observation that every home in the town of Corkadoragh is populated by “one man, at least, called the Gambler,” a worn old man who rises only occasionally from his chimney-corner bed to “tell stories of the bad times,” and “a comely lassie named Nuala or Babby or Mabel or Rosie.” Yet as much as he pokes fun at the tropes of his native culture, the author never shies away from them. Indeed, he embraces and revels in these old cultural saws, and it’s his unembarrassed love for the oft-repeated stories of his youth that drive The Poor Mouth forward and make it an enjoyable read.
There’s certainly plenty to be said for Flann O’Brien (whose real name, by the way, was Brian O’Nolan), and I can see why my Irish-scholar friends speak so highly of him. He’s funny, smart and crazy. At the same time, though, his more esoteric works like The Third Policeman require a bit of patience, and full appreciation of his more “traditional” works like The Poor Mouth may require a fairly firm grounding in Irish culture. An interesting author, but perhaps an acquired taste.
Available from The Dalkey Archive.