Rare Bird Books €22.99
A sprawling epic even though it’s set for the most part over a mere couple of months, a sweeping family saga, a tale of rags to riches in modern-day America, a contemporary gangster story, a wry and perceptive social commentary, a believable depiction of Catholic church meddling in the land of the free…it’s difficult to pin down one succinct line to describe what this novel actually is, but it’s all the richer for that.
Paddy Fitzgerald, old now and a devout Catholic and wealthy mobster, has lost both his son and his wife and is determined to live out what’s left of his life in something akin to happiness. His daughter-in-law and son’s widow, Frankie, is still trying to make sense of her own, admittedly privileged, life without her beloved Anthony. Paddy’s younger son Matty doesn’t care for Paddy’s wealth and makes his way in the world on the penurious salary of a secondary school teacher in a tough Catholic school. His other son Philip is an ambitious priest well on his way to primacy and – who knows – maybe even papacy? He’s cunning and clever and shape-shifting enough to make it to the top. And Paddy’s only daughter Colleen, his youngest (and the most under-depicted character, by a country mile) is a seemingly good-natured lesbian who doesn’t really get a look in, at least not until near the end of the novel.
There are other characters who are very deftly depicted, like Ruth the Therapist and Bishop Stanislaus Mackey and young Terry the homeless girl with a penchant for destruction, all with key roles to play in this story, but the focus is primarily on the Fitzgeralds and on how Paddy, who controls so much in his city, can’t control his own grownup family. Along the way are incidents of blackmail, violence, kidnapping, betrayal (of both people and holy vows) and an unwanted pregnancy forges the plot towards an ending you wouldn’t envisage.
Despite an unevenness in the editing and some persistent wise-assery on the part of the author, I must admit I liked this book. It’s big and it’s old-fashioned in many senses; there’s no paring of language here, no sparseness, no brevity, none of the hallmarks of 21st century literature. Rather the author has embraced the generous expanse of language, particularly Americanese, and pulls no punches with his story nor his characters. The hard-drinking, fierce and fast-talking, but strangely brave and principled Bishop Mackey gets my vote as the most engaging, puzzling and infuriating character, and he’s awarded some of the best lines in the book. But there are lots of great lines, and indeed lots of nuanced shades among almost all of this very disparate dramatis personae. Di Prisco has gone out on a limb with his family history, reminiscent in many ways of Irwin Shaw’s Rich Man, Poor Man, casting this big fat gem of a book out on a vast ocean of literary ‘minimalism’. At a time when ‘restraint’ is one of the buzzwords in contemporary fiction, he’s given us a tome almost as big as the New Testament. But it’s definitely more profane than sacred. And it’s mesmerizing.