John the Revelator

John the Revelator

3.6 5
by Peter Murphy

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Already fast becoming a classic among coming-of-age tales, John the Revelator has garnered praise from Nick Laird, Colm Tóibín, Roddy Doyle, and John Boyne, and is a critical darling in the U.K.
This is the story of John Devine—stuck in a small town in the otherworldly landscape of southeastern Ireland, worried over by his single,…  See more details below


Already fast becoming a classic among coming-of-age tales, John the Revelator has garnered praise from Nick Laird, Colm Tóibín, Roddy Doyle, and John Boyne, and is a critical darling in the U.K.
This is the story of John Devine—stuck in a small town in the otherworldly landscape of southeastern Ireland, worried over by his single, chain-smoking, Bible-quoting mother, Lily, and spied on by the “neighborly” Mrs. Nagle. When Jamey Corboy, a self-styled Rimbaudian boy wonder, arrives in town, John’s life suddenly seems full of possibility. His loneliness dissipates. He is taken up by mischief and discovery, hiding in the world beyond as Lily’s mysterious illness worsens. But Jamey and John’s nose for trouble may be their undoing, and soon John will be faced with a terrible moral dilemma.
Joining the ranks of the great novels of friendship and betrayal—A Separate Peace, A Prayer for Owen Meany, and Paddy Clarke Ha Ha HaJohn the Revelator grapples with the pull of the world and the hold of those we love.

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Editorial Reviews

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The only son of a single mother, John Devine grows up in poverty in southern Ireland, a region steeped in ancient myth and devout Catholicism. John's mother cleans houses for a living, and at night she sits by the fire, recounting tales of John's birth and the magical effect of her singing on his colicky infancy. At school, John learns that bad girls and boys go to Hell, where the devil roasts and eats them.

When John is ten, his mother leaves for the hospital and Mrs. Nagle, a creepy neighbor, moves in to take care of him. His mother returns, but John experiences his first intimations of her mortality as he witnesses her weakened condition and her surgical scar. At 15, much to the chagrin of his mother and Mrs. Nagle, John makes a friend. Jamey is the charismatic son of a posh family, a boy who gets away with everything. He steals liquor from bars, charms adults, and somehow pulls off good grades. Most amazing is that Jamey is a burgeoning writer and an avid fan of Rimbaud. But in a climactic scene, the two boys commit an unforgivable deed, resulting in betrayal and Jamey's exile.

In this luminously written tale of a young boy's hardscrabble coming-of-age, Murphy reveals, with preternatural clarity, universal truths about friendship, love, and loss. (Fall 2009 Selection)

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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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I was born in a storm. My mother said the thunder was so loud she flinched when it struck, strobes of lightning and slam-dancing winds and volleys of rain for hours until it blew itself out and sloped off like a spent beast.

'I knew you were a boy,' she said. 'Heartburn. Sure sign of a man in your life.'

My name is John Devine. I was christened after the beloved disciple, the brother of James the Great. Our Lord called them the sons of thunder.

'John was Jesus' favourite,' my mother told me. 'The patron saint of printers and tanners and typesetters.'

When she got started on this, it could go on for hours. We were out walking the fields at the back of our house. I was still in short trousers. My mother strode ahead, hell bent on where she was going, and I had to trot to keep up.

'He was the only one to stay awake in the garden while Our Lord sweated blood,' she said. 'After the crucifixion, the emperor brought him to Rome to be flogged and beaten and thrown in a cauldron of boiling oil. They tried to poison him with wine, but the poison rose to the surface in the shape of a snake. In the end they banished him to Patmos, where he wrote the Book of Revelation.'

She took out her handkerchief and dribbled on it.

'The only apostle to escape martyrdom.'

And she wiped my face. The smell was like when you lick yourself, a compound of saliva and tissue and skin. I tried to pull away, but she wouldn't let go until she was satisfied I was clean.

'He died in the year a hundred and one. People believed that once a year his grave gave off a smell that could heal the sick. Just before John passed away, his followers carried him into the assembly at the church of Ephesus and asked him how to live. You know what he said?'

She stuffed the tissue up her sleeve.

'Little children, love one another.'

'That's all?'

'It's enough to be going on with.'

Said my mother, I was still an infant when we moved from the caravan near Ballo strand to a house a couple of miles outside Kilcody. Her mother and father willed it to her when they died. It was always so cold there you could see your breath hang in the air. Vines of ivy crawled across the pebble-dashed walls; weeds strangled the few sticks of rhubarb. There was a sandpit out the back, broken toys and mustard minarets of turd, an orange clothesline dripping laundry.

Every day after school I dragged my schoolbag home like it was a younger brother, let myself into the house and snapped on all the downstairs lights. There was a cactus on our kitchen windowsill, swollen green fingers and prickly white spines. Beside that was Haircut Charlie, the clown's head for planting seeds in, grass growing out of the tiny holes in his skull. A sacred-heart lamp glowed atop the mantelpiece. The floor was new blue linoleum with black patterns. One time a pipe under the sink leaked and we had to tear up the old stuff and underneath was crawling with bulbous pea-green slugs and brown fungus, like deformed bonsai trees.

My mother was still at work when I got home. She cleaned people's houses, and sometimes she took in clothes to be washed or mended. She said you could tell a lot about a person from their dirty laundry.

I'd sit over my homework at the kitchen table, anticipating the squeak of the gate, the parched bark of her cough. If she were late I'd start to worry that she'd been taken, and I'd be sent to an orphanage or made to live with her friend Mrs Nagle or someone else old. But she always came home, shrugging out of her coat and saying she was choking for a cup of tea and a fag.

After the kettle went on she set the fire, placing bits of Zip under the briquettes, blue and orange flames licking at her fingers. Then she hefted the big pot onto the cooker.

'What's for dinner?'

'Pig's feet and hairy buttermilk.'

She spread the tablecloth and set the Delph. There were Polish cartoons on television, followed by the Angelus' boring bongs. My mother looked out the window and smoked while I ate. Her green eyes went grey whenever it rained and her hair was braided halfway down her back. After the washing up, she sat by the fire and read her Westerns. Gusts sobbed in the chimney and the fire spat and crackled.

'Book any good?'

'Ah -'

She slapped it shut, shook a Major's from the box and broke the filter off.

'Too many descriptions. I know what a tree looks like.'

The long nights were hard going. There was nothing to do but stare at the fire or listen to the wind howl around the eaves. The sound reminded my mother of the night I was born.

'You were a typical boy,' she muttered under her breath. 'You came early.'

She screwed the truncated cigarette into a holder, lit it, took a deep breath and hawed a coil of smoke rings.

'It was about the thirty-fourth week.'

Then she leaned down and cranked the bellows, sending firefly flurries up the chimney. The fire blazed and crackled. She let me climb onto her lap, and her long fingers latticed across my stomach.

'There was a storm waiting to happen. The air was full of it.'

Her voice was deep and hypnotic, her breath warm against my crown. I closed my eyes and could almost smell the bonfire smoke drift through the halting site, could see children running around with no trousers on, dogs tearing plastic bags of rubbish asunder. Air pressure like a migraine, pitchfork lightning and growls of thunder.

My mother described how when the storm struck she covered all the mirrors and crawled under her quilt and spread her hands over the swell of her belly, as though to protect me from the flashes of light and the noise. Fear churned her insides, travelled downward and became a clenching of pelvic muscles. She prayed it was a false alarm, tried to will the pangs away, but they intensified.

Her waters broke, soaking her leggings. She grabbed the bag she'd packed and out she went into the furious night and knocked on caravan windows. Nobody answered. Fear came upon her in great black waves. Panic welled up in her chest. But just as she despaired of finding help, a man appeared, unsteady and reeking of stout and sweat, but a man all the same, and he said he'd oblige her with a lift.

He was so jarred it took his Fiat three goes to exit the roundabout. Raindrops burst like pods against the windshield and water coated the road in a gleaming slick. My mother screwed her eyes shut and tried not to vomit or pass out as the waves of pain broke inside her lower parts.

They barely made it. A nurse helped my mother onto a trolley and wheeled her into the elevator cage and up to the delivery ward, no time for an epidural or any of that, just gas and air, my mother gumming on the apparatus like a suckling calf, hair plastered across her forehead, grinning at the midwife.

'You wouldn't happen to have a Baby Power's in your bag of tricks there,' she slurred.

'Be quiet and keep pushing,' said the midwife.

Breathing and pushing and moaning, gas and air and more breathing and pushing and moaning, and then I slithered out. The midwife scooped me up and the obstetrician cut the cord.

'A boy?' my mother asked, lifting her sweaty head.

'Aye,' said the midwife, as she wrapped me in a terrytowel.

'Any extras? Harelip? Flippers?'

'Whisht,' said the midwife.

The obstetrician looked me over, pronounced me hardy as a foal.

'He used to kick like one,' said my mother, and sank back into the pillows.

The recovery ward was full of nightgowned, slippered women, their faces flushed with fatigue. The rooms were warm and stuffy and my mother couldn't sleep. Soon as she could walk she called a taxi and took us home to the caravan. She padded the top drawer of an old teak dresser with blankets for a bassinet and placed me in it. Then the trouble started.

'You were a holy terror,' she said, mashing her fag into the seashell at her feet. 'When I put you on the tit, I bled. Then you got in a knot with the colic and wouldn't let me sleep a wink. No sooner fed than you had to be winded. Then you'd poss up, and you'd be hungry again, so I'd feed you a second time, and as soon as I'd put you down to sleep you'd dirty your nappy, so I'd have to take you back up, and you'd be wide awake and hungry all over again. You had me vexed, son.'

For weeks she didn't get to finish a cup of tea or sit down to a proper meal. She barely spoke, and when she did it was through a veil of exhaustion, with a two-second satellite delay. Bad thoughts came. Fear for this tiny thing in her care, all kinds of wicked shadows snarling and pawing at the door. Some nights her moods got so moribund she harboured thoughts of putting a pillow over my head so as to get it over with quick.

'What stopped you?'

'You weren't baptised yet.'

Night after night I wailed my beetroot head off, and my mother walked the floor and patted my back in time with the songs playing on the local radio station, her walking, me bawling. One night, maybe three or four in the morning, the news came on. The man reading the headlines said the Met Office had issued a storm warning: gale-force winds, possible flooding. People were advised to stop home except for emergencies.

I went on caterwauling, and my mother rocked me in the crook of her shoulder, breathing my newborn smell. She held me to her breast and murmured into my pink cockleshell ear, 'It's an ill wind, son.'

And for no other reason than to drown out my squalling, she began to sing, the first thing that came into her head. As soon as I heard that sound, I fell silent. The song died in her mouth and she stared, stunned, as my eyelids came down and my body went limp. She laid me in my crib, checked my breath with her compact.

'At last,' she sighed, and crawled into bed.

It was the queerest thing, said my mother, but ever after that, I slept peacefully, ten hours a night. Provided she sang.

And I believed her, because a mother's word is gospel to her son.

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John the Revelator 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Laphroaig More than 1 year ago
An OK story, but given the title and the author, I thought this book might be of particuar interest to blues enthusiasts. It wasn't. It's not a bad read, but the occasional allusions to traditional music of any sort are sporadic and trivial, of no depth, interest, or *ahem* resonance. I guess my expectations aren't the book's problem, but still I felt a bit let down.
Literacy_for_the_World More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book. Peter Murphy has a wonderful way of describing things that made me feel like I had been there. This book took me to a place where I became a pubescent boy growing up with a single mother in a tiny Catholic village in modern Ireland. Great Read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A sort of coming of age for a young boy in Ireland, Peter Murphy does a fantastic job of creating a loveable character. The reader forms a close bond to the young boy who gets thrown into all sorts of unusual situations. It's an easy and enjoyable read. The plot itself isn't all that intricate but it is a perfect read for a rainy day or when you are simply looking for a feel good book.
adunlea More than 1 year ago
John The Revelator by Peter Murphy (Book Review) John The Revelator is a great debut novel by Peter Murphy. It is published by Faber and Faber and its ISBN is 0571240208. This is a quirky coming of age tale. It is well written in evocative and beautiful prose. The story is not original but it is an interesting account of the pain and agony of being an illegitimate child in old rural Ireland and the boy's desire to escape. It touches other subjects like the power struggle between mother and son, religion and friendship. The narrator is John Devine who is a loner until at 16 he meets Jamie who introduces John to pubs and criminals. Lily his mother quotes the bible alot and tries to keep him on the straight and narrow. This is magnificently written, its language is poetic in parts and is a pleasure to read. I highly recommend this novel. Reviewed by Annette Dunlea author of The Honey Trap and Always and Forever.