Long Time, No See

The English language as spoken by the Irish calls up a far different world from the one found coming out of other Englishes, American or British. Rich with animistic conceits and logical twists, it tends toward speculativeness and seems a little wary of what it describes, as if there might be a secret side to things. This language’s take on the world, one quite unscathed by Occam’s razor, may be found in all its imaginative force in the pages of poet and novelist Dermot Healy’s Long Time, No See, a novel of strange sweetness and muted emotion.

Set in 2006, in and around a little coastal town on the Northwest coast of Ireland, the story, such as it is — for there is little plot, though much incident — is told by Philip, a boy just out of high school. He is in a state of suspension, not only waiting for the results of his exams but also drifting in isolating sadness over the death of a friend in a car crash. He spends his days working odd jobs for money and offering a helping hand to all and sundry. The chief objects of his care are the novel’s other central characters, his granduncle, Joejoe, and the Blackbird, Joejoe’s particular friend. Both men are old, stubborn, and filled with crochets; both address the world in language that grants each thing more creaturely identity, individuality, and powers of agency than do most other tongues: “Be God,” says Joejoe when Philip’s father replaces a pane of glass in his window, “I think it lets in a better class of light than before.”

Strangeness and wonder are everywhere in this book, and storms, wild customers themselves, seem to bring them on. After one great blow, Philip goes down to the shore to examine the damage:

I checked the lobster pots, then I came upon this old wall set into the bottom of the cliff that had not been there before. The storm had dragged down the boulder clay and uncovered this ancient stone wall, about twenty foot long, cemented with sandy clay.

It was the same rock that built our house and built the walls in the fields. It was everywhere around me, but had never been there, under the cliff, stone on stone, until the sea hoked it out.

I said to myself have I seen you before, but I hadn’t.

If Philip seems unusually charitable — and he does, his mood seeming to be one of expiation for his friend’s death — it is a virtue that eventually affects practically everyone in the book, including a couple of lorry drivers, a former sniper, two shipwrecked Russian sailors, another Russian who was once an opera singer, and three hippies. People pitch in, left and right, bringing order and rightness: getting a stalled car started, cutting the overgrown hooves of an old donkey, oiling metalwork, tidying up Joejoe’s house, cleaning a chimney choked by decades of soot and debris. That, in particular, is a great and satisfying production. This friendly, order-bringing activity culminates in a section called “The Protestant Earth.” It describes the leveling of a little hill that had obstructed the sea view of the old Protestant woman who lives in the area’s decaying “big house” and transporting the earth to Philip’s (Catholic) mother’s future garden. Even the two deaths that occur in the book are followed by all the rightness and respectful finality of perfectly organized, well-attended wakes.

The novel sets forth something like a prelapsarian Ireland, one where peace, order, and kindness prevail, where the enchanted hare with a taste for salt and his friend, the heron, stand in quiet companionship beside each other looking out to sea. The presence of foreigners now living in the land is not resented, and except for an altercation between the two old fellows, almost every other encounter sparks amity. It is, perhaps, a wishful alternative to the New Ireland, for the novel is set during the Celtic Tiger, the boom that plunged the country into devastating prosperity. But in this Ireland, the grim Jansenist fatalism of the past hasn’t been replaced by grotesque materialism — as was the actual case — but rather by a sense of hope and caring. In this version, the old and the new exist together in serenity: “A woman power-walker strode by. In the field beyond, a magpie stood on a sheep, on the middle of her back, looking off into the distance, and the sheep had her head a little off the ground, wondering.”

In this place, under this pen, the present inhabits the past even as it replaces it — in striking contrast to the violations and despoliations of the actual Irish building bonanza. We are given only two brief glimpses of real estate developments, their untenanted buildings harbingers of the disaster to come; but we are presented with a beautifully wrought alternative: Philip building the dry-stone wall that will surround his mother’s garden, the destination of the “Protestant earth.” I leave you with it and with Dermot Healy’s great and yearning poetic vision:

Some of the stone I used had come inland in storms. But today I started to haul from an old ruin up on the bank overlooking the sea. I got an awful bad feeling as I pulled the rocks out of the ruin. I had to tell myself over and over that they were going back into another wall. The ruin was supposed to have been a henhouse way back, but it was the strongest built henhouse I ever came across. There were massive stones in her. I could have been demolishing a small church, and sometimes I thought I was.

A beehive hut it might have been.

A monk’s chamber.
I could even feel the sense of balance of the man who had built it.
He drew the stone from the coral beach by ass and cart to the spot I was taking them from. As he built alongside me, I was pulling his work down. As he dropped a stone into place, I lifted it and carried it away. He built towards me, and I built away from him. I could feel the way he carried himself. He could have been a great-great-granduncle of mine. In his wall I came across chaffs of wheat that were still dry. The bones of coral. White marble. A clay pipe. I was over and back with the barrow, then I began to build. And he came with me. Fit in, stand back, put in a small stone, and follow the twine.
Good man.
He stood to the side watching me work.