Like tucking into a vat of potatoes after long without food, during winter break, I read in rapid (rabid?) succession Flann O’Brien’s The Poor Mouth and The Hard Life. Truly when I finished reading The Poor Mouth, I was still hungry and needed more. Good thing I stocked up on both books!
Anything I say about Flann O’Brien will clunk like a can down malnourished and decrepit steps into the void of my own unworthiness, but my evangelical urge I can no longer ignore. So.
If you’re into the show “Lost” perhaps you’ve heard of or even read O’Brien’s The Third Policeman. I didn’t watch many episodes of that show, so I’m blind to the connection, but I’m glad more people heard about (and possibly read) O’Brien’s novel. (The which I need to re-read, and soon. I first read it as part of a seminar in grad school with Rod Val Moore. The book was suggested in preparation for a field trip to the Museum of Jurassic Technology.)
Reading The Poor Mouth (published in 1941) is like diving into a pool of hilarity and squalor (yes) and eating it all with a spoon. Yum, hyperbole! My favorite! Among other things I hope to grasp as soon as I re-read The Poor Mouth, O’Brien becomes a sort of cantor, invoking lyrical phrases of misery, a tapestry of moments in which, for instance, we hear, “…generally no sound except the roar of the water falling outside from gloomy skies, just as if those on high were emptying buckets of that vile wetness on the world.” A tattered weariness in which scenes begin with openings like: “One afternoon I was reclining on the rushes in the end of the house considering the ill-luck and evil that had befallen the Gaels (and would always abide with them) when…” Reveling in this luxurious squalor and over-the-topness, I laughed loud and often as I read along, even more than while reading Wodehouse. To rip a phrase from O’Brien and twist it terribly, each chapter is like a thesis, proving without doubt that the plight of O’Brien’s Gaels is a bad life “whose like will ever be there again.” (Just read the book. It’s short. If you hate it, I’ll give your money back.) I also need to read it again to see how it lines up with another hyperbolic novel on the topic of poverty, though not nearly as hilarious, George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London.
Literary belly still grumbling, I took up The Hard Life. Published in 1962, the story was more shaped and plotty than The Poor Mouth. At intervals, two characters tussle in flappy rants about the shadowy political power of Jesuits within the Catholic church. Their dialogue was so well written that I didn’t struggle, despite my lack of knowledge about the issues they debated. To press these two characters into a modern context, their arguments could have been mouth-offs between two old school rappers, one-upping each other (mostly) good-naturedly, but with no self-censor. They were funny. And the mountingly bizarre plot twists were delectable. (See, I’m still on this stuff as if it’s food! And really, it is.) The end was unexpected and brilliant. I’ll say no more, so as not to spoil a good meal.