The recent re-publication of Dermot Healy’s first novel, as well as a collection, for the first time, of all his short stories – both by Dalkey Archive – make a suitable tribute to the author, who passed away in 2014. Together with an upcoming collection of essays about Healy, these efforts are a literary memorial to one of the great writers of our time.
These two books show the writer-as-enchanter drawing from the depths of an imaginative authenticity. In his clasp, the minutiae of rural quotidian transform into sweeping mythological orders that are universes unto themselves. Healy’s landscapes – both of the soil and of the mind – are inhabited by consciousnesses bound by their longing. His characters are never fully settled even when they appear to be at peace with the conditions into which they have drifted.
Often difficult in their inevitable discombobulation, many of the stories resist the meaningfulness of stable order, preferring instead to take shape on the basis of instinct and impulse. Conventional platitudes of a writing’s timelessness do not apply here. With Healy, Romantic Ireland is hardly dead and gone; its provincial heroes survive against the odds and the oddities.
Fighting with Shadows, first published in 1986, offers its strangeness through the fortunes – to use a term loosely – of the Allen family. Its plot of hidden identities and existences rended asunder belie a fabulous domestic world that accommodates the intrusions of changing political realities even as it outwits their accompanying martial insidiousness. If death, in all its magical realist delicacy, cannot divide the characters, then the Troubles that is the novel’s historical setting is at worst an inconvenience. Where there are divides, it suggests, there are bridges.
While defying episodic linearity, Fighting with Shadows’ coherence is scaffolded by the consummate story-teller telling the tales of story-tellers. In this, it stands up to the blind-logic of guerrilla tit-for-tat that threatens to erode the organic sensibilities of a small-‘r’ romantic tradition. Here, even the most private of in-jokes do not come across as alienating. Instead, they, rendered in the well-honed range of Irish voices to which Healy is so acutely tuned, project a comforting recognisability that welcomes the reader’s inquisitiveness.
Much has been written of Healy’s attraction to the borderlands, those edges of contending expectations, and meeting place of weird energies. Between those who stubbornly stay put and those for whom the crossing is more indulgence than imperative, the world is held together by habit-forming negotiations that sustain an uneasy but vital equanimity. Thresholds are meant to be transgressed, limits tested, as Healy’s literary output has continually demonstrated. Nonetheless, the clarity of his visionary poetry masquerading as prose is robust enough to preserve the delicate balance that constantly threatens to undo the thin fictions that his characters weave for themselves, both in the novel and in his short stories.
Dermot Healy first came to attention as a short story writer given to exploring the vivacity of the periphery. His domain is the stultifying hold that small communities have over their inhabitants and entrants. The stranger always has a place in Healy’s world because everyone is treated with equal measure of suspicion and tenderness. For a writer so enamoured of the complexities that disrupt human interaction, his apparent empathy with the emotional and intellectual implications of destitution is perhaps understandable: encumbrance is a seldom-considered tool in the repertoire, rich for the material it provides to the teller, yet sufficiently abstract to prevent unremitting personal investment that clouds the writerly insight.
Throughout The Collected Short Stories, we witness Healy lay his characters bare among what little is left of their lives. We witness this in the reluctant yearning of “First Snow of the Year”, our harrowing realisation of inevitability in “Banished Misfortune”, and the uncompromising entanglement at the heart of “Betrayal”. The author shapes his characters’ private agonies into public mysticism while they are at their most vulnerable, exerting a hypnotic hold on our attention to their subdued drama. The emotions that these stories draw from us are intense but never devastating. At some point, they reassure us, the ground will have to stop giving way.
A word on the editorial effort in these two books: Keith Hopper and Neil Murphy have gone to great lengths to transform Healy’s earlier, perhaps hurried, versions into works that befit his stature in Irish and modern literature. The introductions set out the projects’ intricate demands, both of literary acuity and patient detection. By providing the reader with examples of varying textual incarnation, the extra-textual material gives us great insight to the possibilities that can emerge from the intersection between intention, realisation and sheer instinct – like inhabitants of so many Healyian border towns. The results are a completist’s delight, and the formidable scholarship at work here will go a long way towards securing Dermot Healy’s legacy.
Dermot Healy. Fighting With Shadows: Or Sciamarchy: A Novel. Eds. Neil Murphy and Keith Hopper. Dublin: Dalkey Archive Press, 2015.
Dermot Healy. The Collected Short Stories. Eds. Keith Hopper and Neil Murphy. Dublin: Dalkey Archive Press, 2015.
Lim Lee Ching