The Salesmanby Joseph O'Connor
During the hottest summer in Dublin's history, Billy Sweeney, a middle-aged salesman, decides to take the law into his own hands after his daughter is attacked. But when his plans go spectacularly wrong, the results are terrifying, often hilarious, and in the end, unforgettable.
Irish America Magazine
The New York Times Book Review
The New York Times Book Review
"O'Connor has a great eye for the absurd in common things, a great ear for the comic in ordinary speech. His writing is terrific."—Roddy Doyle
"Stunning . . . A narrative brilliantly blending past and present as O'Connor deftly probes the aftermath of loss and tragedy, interwaeving the harsh facts with dark humor that glints on the edge of pain."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"A game of psychological cat and mouse is at the core of The Salesman . . . [A] gripping story."—Harper's Bazaar
"Pungent and cruelly evocative language . . . Painfully vivid [and] gripping . . . Mr. O'Connor's dialogue is by turns bristling and bleak, tender and funny, and his characters are free of stereotypes."—The Wall Street Journal
"A sharp, unsparing reflection on modern Ireland . . . A deft, often angry, and moving portrait of the complexities of loss and vengeance."—Kirkus Reviews
"Mesmerizing . . . The honesty and bravery of O'Connor's writing make emotions authentic and redemption almost credible."—The Observer
"[A] superbly written novel."—Literary Review
"O'Connor's depiction of a relationship disintegrating under the pressure of money and drink is painfully believable."—The Sunday Times
"While Sweeney's rage towards his daughter's attackers and the climactic cat-and-mouse game that follows make for gripping reading, it is O'Connor's thoroughly real portrayal of a crumbling marriage that makes for the novel's most stirring scenes."—The Irish Voice
- Random House UK
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Read an Excerpt
Since these things must begin somewhere, I suppose I should start with the first time I met your mother. You will remember my telling you that Seánie and I and some of the other lads from Ringsend had a little skiffle band when we were kids. We were called the Raytown Rhythm Kings, if you don't mind, and we were going to be huge. A fat lad called Noel Bascombe played the drums. Buckets Bascombe, everyone called him. We used to tell Buckets that he was huge already. He could have worn his stomach as a kilt.
I played the piano whenever we could find a piano; other times I strummed on an old banjo or a big battered guitar with a terrible action and thick steel strings that made my fingertips ache and bleed. Seánie Ronan Father Seán played this beautiful semi-acoustic red Hofner guitar which he had ordered from a catalogue sent him by an aunt who lived in Chicago.
The last time I bumped into Noel was in town, about a year ago now, just shortly after that dreadful night and what happened to you. It was one of those dark and spattery Dublin autumn afternoons that make your skin sting and toes ache with the cold. I was rushing down Grafton Street, late for something, when I glanced up and happened to notice this enormous flabby man staring in the window of Brown Thomas and recognised him straight away, though I had not seen him in an age. I went over and tapped his shoulder. I was right, it was Buckets. The hug he gave me nearly broke my back. He lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin now, married to a Lebanese girl, his third marriage, he hadn't been home in nearlytwenty years, he told me. He was driving a train for Amtrak over there. I told him I had given up the teaching some years earlier I lied about how many years and was selling TV satellite dishes. He laughed. `Look at us, pal. Remember we were gonna be big rock 'n' roll stars, Billy? I guess we talked the talk, but we didn't walk the walk in the end, huh?' Lightning flickered and cracked in the sky over Trinity College. Hailstones started to surge down into the street. We stepped into a doorway, Buckets cursing the weather.
`How's that eldest girl of yours?' he asked me then. `I guess she's a respectable married lady now?'
I told him about Lizzie emigrating to Australia and marrying Franklin. I showed him a photograph of her, another of Conal and Erin, whom he said did not look like twins. I remember noticing the Americanness of his accent when he pronounced their names. He called me a glamorous grandad. Then he asked about your mother. He seemed sad when I told him how it had not worked out between us, and shocked at the news of her death. But when I told him what had happened to you, his gentle rheumy eyes actually filled with tears. He kept saying your name, over and over. Maeve. Little Maeve. After a while I was actually sorry I had told him, he was so upset. He insisted on coming out to the hospital with me later that evening, the two of us silent in the taxi all the way out the coast road towards Dun Laoghaire, the wild grey waves splashing over the sea wall at Booterstown.
Afterwards we went to the bar of the Royal Marine Hotel. He drank a few Irish coffees and I had tonic water. His face was very white and there was a fearful blankness in his eyes. He kept trying to get me to have a drink. 'What's the matter, Bill, don't y'like it no more? Or don't tell me you're one of these damn waistline watchers now?' I told him I liked it too much, how it had been one of the big things between your mother and me. He attempted a smile. `Jesus. Things sure don't work out the way everyone says, Billy, do they?'
A few weeks later a padded envelope arrived at home with a Wisconsin postmark. Inside was the photograph Buckets had promised me that evening when I had seen him off at the guest-house, an old creased-up snap, mottled by mould, of the Raytown Rhythm Kings playing a gig in Beechwood Avenue Tennis Club on a December night in 1963 when I was seventeen years old. There we are on this tiny stage with a low ceiling, Seánie out front, collar turned up on his black leather jacket, red Hofner slung low down to his crotch, white shirt open to his navel. His damp quiff is in his eyes, with a few strands clinging to his wide sweaty forehead. I'm at the back strumming a guitar and looking a little down in the mouth. Buckets is wearing his sister Bernice's pink sequined blouse and pounding the snare drum, his eyes closed tight, his cheeks puffed out. Beside him playing a tea-chest bass is Frank English, a nice quiet lad from Hope Street in Ringsend. I have not seen Frank in thirty years and have no idea now what ever happened to him in the end.
Seánie was so handsome in those days, what all the Ringsend girls used to call a dazzler. He had sleek black hair that did not curl up like mine, sallow skin, gleaming white teeth, cheek-bones you could hang your hat on, as my mother used to say. He had a way of looking straight at you when you were talking that made you feel like you were the only person in the world. He would listen attentively to what you were saying; often he would say something back to you about it much later, as if he had really been thinking about it in the meantime. He was easy and relaxed, I never once saw him get flustered by anything. The girls just loved him. He had one trick I often saw him do: when a nice-looking girl came into the room he would wait casually until she noticed him, then he would glance back, take his cigarette out of his mouth, do his full-beam dazzler smile, drop the cigarette nonchalantly on the floor and crush it out with his foot, but never once taking his eyes off her. It was a small enough thing, but it always worked.
There he is in this photograph, doing the dazzler smile. Christ, what a nightmare he was.
I think we were about half-way through our set that night when I saw this slim beautiful girl in the middle of the crowd, right beneath the revolving mirrorball, dancing with another girl. She had on a blue knee-length dress with short sleeves and white polka dots. Her black hair was tied up on top of her head. She was wearing some kind of pendant that seemed to glitter on the soft part of her neck when the light from the mirrorball would catch it. She was so lovely, she reminded me of Audrey Hepburn. She and her friend were wonderful dancers. They wheeled around and swung each other back and forwards, the two of them laughing together as they swayed their hips and snapped their fingers in time to the music. From time to time apprehensive-looking boys would approach and ask them to dance but mostly the two girls would shake their heads and say no. I could not stop looking at your mother, the way she jived and twisted and threw back her head when she laughed, the lightness of her and the way the blue dress with the white dots moved on her slender body. Late one night recently I was driving up from Limerick through a full-force gale when on the car radio, over the wail of the rain and wind, I heard Seamus Heaney read out an old love poem with a phrase in it the liquefaction of her clothes: I don't mind telling you, pet, that brought me right back to the very smell of the night I met Grace Lawrence, perfume, sweat, clean hair, cheap aftershave on the hot damp air, the very feel of the grit on the tennis club dance floor, and the liquefaction of her clothes.
Towards the end of our set she sauntered off with her friend and disappeared down the back of the room. When we finished playing, the others went to the changing-room but I hung around in the hall, hoping to see her and maybe speak to her. I walked up and down for a while, feeling light-headed and strange. The second band came on. Couples started slow-dancing. I could not find your mother anywhere. After a while I gave up and decided to go and have a drink. That was when I noticed her again.
She was in the queue for the mineral bar, four people ahead of me in the line, her long tanned arms around a girl in a flowery trouser suit and a boy wearing denims and leather. All three were chatting together and laughing. I strained to hear what your mother was saying but it was no good, I could not make out the words. I remember she took the thick blue hairband off her head and let her hair fall down around her shoulders. She combed through her hair with her fingers. I looked at the side of her face. She seemed heartbreakingly beautiful then. She and her friends got to the bar and ordered their drinks. Then they stood to one side and swigged from their bottles, the three of them looking at the dancers and nudging one another.
The band was playing a Christmas carol. A ludicrously tall girl in a Santa Claus outfit was crooning the words, swaying from side to side in uneasy rhythm to the drummer's brush sticks.
In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone:
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter,
By now I was at the bar myself and only a few feet away from your mother. She had her back to me and I could see the tops of her bare brown shoulders. I ordered drinks for the lads and myself and paid for them. I was just about to take up the bottles and leave when your mother turned around giggling to put her lemonade bottle on the bar and I caught her eye. I felt a flutter in my stomach. I did not even have time to think about it, I just asked her straight out if she wanted to dance. She peered at me for a second with a quizzical look but then she just shrugged and said yes, all right. She turned to the boy and girl and asked them to mind her bag.
The band started into a new song. We walked to the edge of the dance floor. Your mother put her hands on my shoulders, and I put mine on her hips. I remember the warm silky fabric of her dress. We danced so far apart it was as if there was another person dancing between us. For a few moments she said nothing at all to me, just stared around the hall with a self-conscious grin, sometimes snapping her long hair out of her eyes or whistling. It intrigued me that she whistled: I don't think I had ever met a girl who whistled before. Then she gazed into my face the pupils of her glittering eyes were wide and dark and asked me was I always this quiet. I couldn't think of anything to say so I simply apologised. I could feel myself blushing. She smiled gently at me and said she didn't mind. In fact, she told me, she liked boys who were quiet when they danced and didn't interrogate you like a bloody policeman.
`Because some of them,' she said, `soon as you're out on the floor it's what's your name and where do you go to school and where do you live and what kind of music do you like? And of course' here she put on a stupid voice and made her eyes bulge `do you come here often?'
`And do you?' I asked her.
`No.' She peered at me. 'But I'm glad I did tonight.'
`I am too.'
`I'm sure you are,' she smiled.
She moved closer to me and curled her arms up to touch my shoulder-blades.
`So why did you come anyway?' I said. `Is it because it's Christmas soon?'
`No, I don't believe in Christmas,' she said.
When I finally got home to Raytown that night the house was dark and silent. My lips were numb and dry with cold. I sat in the kitchen for a while drinking tea and eating toast, while the lights blinked red and gold on the Christmas tree. I looked at the tiny figures in the crib on the mantelpiece, the kneeling shepherds, the virgin in blue, the camel missing one hump, the chipped and misshapen Magi. I went up to my room, put on the bedside light and undressed. It was so very cold that night, I remember shivering, and ice forming on the inside of the windowpane. I took a blanket from the bed and wrapped it around myself. Your Uncle Stephen, who would have been about ten at the time, woke up and asked me was anything wrong, but I told him no, nothing was wrong, everything was fine now, and he fell back asleep, stuttering the names of the stars, which for some reason always used to feature in his dreams when he was that age. I got a pencil and an old copybook and wrote out the words of the song to which your mother and I had danced.
`Vulpecula,' he sleep whispered. `Andromeda. Draco. Perseus.'
I have the copybook still and came across it again only recently, in a drawer downstairs stuffed with tangled fairy lights, strings of bright tinsel, sheets of crepe paper, angels made of tin foil. There is a map of Ireland on the salmonpink front cover, along with my name and birthplace in Irish, `Liam O'Suibhne, Baile Atha Cliath', and an intricate Celtic cross. The inside cover has printed on it the names of all the signatories of the 1916 proclamation along with their dates of birth and execution by the British. There is only one piece of homework in the copybook, an essay about what I had done on my summer holidays that year. All the other kids had written about trips down the country to see their relations, or building sandcastles on Dollymount strand. I wrote about going to the moon. There it is, `My Summer on the Moon' by Liam O'Suibhne. And there on the inside back cover are the date and the words to the song, in red fountain pen, tiny scribbled letters, somehow fitted in beneath the printed panel containing the names of the thirty-two counties of Ireland, with their chief towns, important rivers and major industries, and the motto `Ireland Unfree Shall Never be at Peace'.
Aquila. Delphinus. Arcturus. Castor. Ophiuchus. Pleiades. Camelopardalis.
1963 December 12
I can feel a new sensation in the place;
I can feel a new expression on my face;
And I can hear the guitars playing lovely tunes,
Every time that you walk in the room.
* * *
When Seánie and I arrived for the second day of the trial we were a couple of minutes late. The traffic had been very bad on the drive in from Dalkey; an oil truck had jackknifed on the dual carriageway outside RTE, and Nutley Lane had been closed. It was clear when we got to the court that something was badly wrong. Reporters were crowded around the door, shoving each other, trying to take pictures, being warned to stop and held back by a line of guards. Some of them shouted at me as I tried to get in, asked me how I felt about what had happened now. Before I could answer or even speak two guards had grabbed Seánie and me by the arms and were dragging us through the scrum and into the court. As we pushed our way in I saw that the detective was on his feet and trying to speak to the judge. People in the public gallery were clapping and shouting. The solicitors and young clerks at the defence table were searching frantically through thick files and books. The judge banged his fist on the bench. `Silence! I've more to do now than contend with empty-headed persons who are here, as far as I can see, for their own amusement and entertainment. There'll be no further disruption of these proceedings. There'll be complete silence this minute, I'm telling you now, or everyone will be put out immediately by the guards. Now go on, superintendent.'
The detective coughed. `Yes, my Lord, I'm afraid it's my duty to inform the court that the prisoner Quinn unfortunately absconded from custody at about five-thirty yesterday afternoon and has not been apprehended since.'
Lizzie came over to me and gripped my wrist. Seánie's mouth was open wide. One of the defence solicitors stood up and started jabbering something about a mistrial application. I could not concentrate on what he was saying. I think he wanted the jury sent out. An argument started. I remember certain words being angrily shouted Supreme Court, justice, constitutional rights and then, before the jury members had quite left, the detective raised his hand and asked for permission to address the court again. The defence solicitors objected furiously that it was a matter for counsel, but the judge told them to sit back down. Quinn's solicitor stayed on her feet, arguing that the jury should be removed immediately if the detective was going to be allowed to give evidence.
`God, hold your horses, can't you, Miss Harding? They're going. And then I'll hear the detective for a minute, it isn't evidence. Superintendent, what measures have you in hand to deal with this very unfortunate turn of events?'
`My Lord, my officers are out now looking for him and I'm confident of an imminent arrest. I would urge your Lordship not to take any action by way of entertaining a mistrial plea. The prisoner Quinn has been known to my colleagues and myself for some time. He has a record of serious violent crime in the south inner city. I've had occasion to interview him many times. He comes from a well-known criminal family and has been in trouble before. Your Lordship will recall that his brother was shot dead in a criminal feud in the city last year.'
A solicitor I had not heard speak before jumped up and shouted. `My Lord, this is absolutely outrageous. Three or four of the jury are still present in court. There's an application before you in relation to the matter. And what Detective Doyle has just said is irrelevant and absolutely can't be admitted. I'll have to insist on the immediate removal of the full jury if he's going to be allowed to abuse the court in this way again.'
'Yes, yes, Mr Duggan, I know. That can't be admitted, detective, you know that well enough. Or you should know it. Now if those few jury members could please leave the court.'
The last of the jurors filed out through the door.
`My Lord,' said the detective, then. `If you could grant a short adjournment ...'
The judge held up his hand. 'You know well I have the greatest sympathy for the gardaí in these difficult times and so on. I think you'd agree that I'd very rarely be found wanting when it comes to the gardaí. But what am I to do here? There are procedures, you know. How in the name of God did this man accused of such a serious violent crime manage to escape from the State's custody?'
`It seems he overpowered the dentist, my Lord, and managed to climb out of a rear window of the premises. Using the drainpipe.'
There was a roar of laughter from the back of the court.
`You do realise how that sounds, detective?'
`I know, my Lord, but ...'
The three in the dock started shouting. They tried to get to their feet, jostling and squirming, and had to be held down by the prison officers. A crowd of people in the public gallery clapped and cheered. The three managed to get back up; they screamed curses at the judge. `Hey you,' one roared. `I fucked your wife. I fucked your wife!' A warder got him into a headlock. A gang of policemen ran into the court with their batons drawn.
`Take them down,' the judge shouted.
The detective rushed over to me and started to say something I could not make out because of the noise. Lizzie was in tears beside me in Franklin's arms. I noticed Hopper from the office sitting in one of the benches with his head in his hands.
`Silence,' the judge was yelling, `I'll have order now or I'll clear the court this minute.'
You may be wondering, I know, exactly why I am doing this now, writing down these words that will reveal to you what was to happen between Donal Quinn and myself in the weeks and months after I decided to end his life and started making my plans. Indeed, I am wondering myself. After only these few pages, I am already a little fearful of the sheer futility of trying to put these things into words. It feels a little like trying to freeze running water.
A good salesman knows the things words can do and the things they can't.
But I do in fact have my reasons.
Once, many years ago, when I was in Carlow Mental Hospital for the first time I think you would have been seven or eight around then the consultant psychiatrist asked me to take a week and write down all the important things in my life. Just that. He felt it would be good for me, he said. Most recovering addicts found this a helpful thing to do.
It was a strange experience because it was only in the writing out of the story that I realised what the important things had actually been. That might sound incredible to you but believe me, it is true. In those years I was too close to the everyday to be able to see anything with objectivity. I wrote for a whole week, usually quite late at night or very early in the morning when my bewildered fellow patients were at mass down in the hospital chapel. I wrote until I had a hard red blister on my writing finger, then I went back and showed the psychiatrist what I had done. He looked through the two full foolscap notebooks for a while. He seemed disappointed and even a little disconcerted. This was all fine, he told me, but there was no feeling in it.
I had no feeling. That part of me had maybe died, he said. It was all facts. I will always remember the strange expression on his face when he told me this. Your life, Mr Sweeney, is all f-f-facts and no f-f-feelings.
It was just my luck to get the only psychiatrist with a stammer in the whole place.
You should try to remember your feelings was what he reckoned, more specifically, your f-f-feelings about your choices. That was what made you f-f-fundamentally human, the nature of the choices that you had made. Every person is the sum of their choices, he said, each one of us is a story, a mix of desires, experiences, f-f-fantasties: I needed to write my story if I wanted to f-f-fully recover.
I was tempted to tell him to go f-f-f-f, but I suppose I felt a bit sorry for him. I went back to the ward and wrote for a while, then I gave it up. But in the long silent hours I spent listless and tranquillized, in a cocoon of artificial warmth punctuated by occasional oddly obsessive, random neural firings, I would find myself thinking incessantly about that word. Recover. An interesting word. To recover is to be healed of an illness, of course, but it is also to reclaim. When a ship sinks at sea the bodies of the drowned are recovered. Stolen goods are recovered by the police. And there is another meaning too, of course, to cover up again. You see, pet, for some reason, lately I have been thinking about what the psychiatrist said to me all those years ago.
I suppose I have been wanting to recover. Hence these words.
There is another, more important reason for doing this now. Last month your doctor and I had a conversation that has stayed with me. He told me that no change could be expected in what he called your condition, at least in the short term. You would not wake from the coma that Donal Quinn and his three brave friends put you into. But you would not die prematurely either. You might awaken in a year, or five years, or thirty years. It was possible and actually quite likely that if you did wake your memory would have gone in parts, or even completely, and that when you tried to recall the important events of your own life nothing would be there. Just a hollowness. A computer, he said, with the hard disc taken out and thrown away.
It was also possible that there would be long-term motor-neuron damage or muscular atrophy. You might never walk normally again. You might well be at least partially blind or deaf. Perhaps you would have lost the power of speech. I found this especially a terrible thought, you who were always so full of endless brave talk, like your mother. These things were notoriously difficult to predict, but you would not die prematurely, he was certain of it. You were in a hospital, after all, it was the safest place you could be.
He took off his glasses and peered at me, an impatient scowl on his suntanned, handsome face. `Lookat, Mr Sweeney, your daughter could live a deal longer than yourself,' he said, and he poked me a few times in the stomach, `'specially if you don't lose a bit of that spare tyre and give up the fags. You're a heart attack waiting to happen.' You know how amazingly arrogant these doctors can be. `Now,' he went, `if you'll excuse me, I've work to see to here.'
In the days afterwards, the doctor's remark began to preoccupy me. It was just a throwaway comment, I was aware of that. But a good salesman knows that a throwaway comment can be more powerful than any other. No force in the world can pierce the armour of the heart like a well-timed throwaway remark. In the car, out on the doorstep, at the warehouse, back at the office, I found myself thinking about what the doctor had said. I began to try and imagine what would happen if I were to die before you. My intention was not to be morbid, but the truth is that you cannot treat your body the way I had treated mine for years and then expect to live to a hundred. I know that. I am not holding my breath for a telegram from the President. So I decided to write these events down, just some things that I thought you should know and one or two things that I am not at all sure you should know, but I am going to tell you anyway about me and your mother, some things that you and I never had the chance to discuss and most probably never will now, and some things that happened when I decided to take the law into my own hands and murder Donal Quinn.
If you ever do wake up, these words and pages will be here for you. I intend to see to that. I do not have high hopes, they are after all only marks on a page, black stains and justifications, and no substitute at all for what you deserved from me. But they might help you to understand something small of where you came from, the bright mad love we felt for you, the evanescent love we had for each other. I confess that I do hope for that little, or that much.
A salesman has to have his hopes. It is not a way of life for a pessimist.
Let me apologise to you now if I tell some things the wrong way around, or incompletely. A forty-nine-year-old man should still have a good memory, but my drinking years I mostly remember as a blur, or more precisely, a set of vague stories and unconnected incidents involving somebody else, a man on the run from love who has nothing at all to do with me. It is not that I have forgotten those times exactly, I just remember them distantly, out of shape, out of their chronology, in the wrong colours.
In fact sometimes, I have discovered, I clearly remember things that never happened, or events at which I was not even present. I could swear to you, for example, that I attended Seánie's investiture as a priest. If somebody asked me now to describe that scene, I could, I know it, down to the details, the chubby bishop, the smell of incense, the shimmering blue of Seánie's robe. In my mind I can see him walking slowly up the aisle with that smile on his handsome face, then lying face down in front of the altar with his hands outstretched. I can see that he is wearing new shoes and has not thought to take the price tags off the soles, and as a result the people around me in the chapel are trying not to laugh. But I know that I was not there that day. It is a simple fact, I was not there. I have seen photographs and I suppose down through the years I must have talked to him and others about it. But I was not there. I could swear I was, but it would not be true.
A good salesman will swear to things he knows not to be true.
Meet the Author
Joseph O'Connor was born and lives in Dublin, Ireland. He is the author of the Whitbread-finalist novel Cowboys & Indians, the novels True Believers and Desperadoes, and numerous non-fiction books and plays. His books, including The Salesman, are bestsellers in England and Ireland.
- Dublin, Ireland
- Date of Birth:
- September 20, 1963
- Place of Birth:
- Dublin, Ireland
- B.A., University College, Dublin, 1984; M.A., 1986; University College, Oxford, 1987; M.A., University of Leeds, 1991
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