Critical Reading: ‘St. Patrick’s Day’ on St. Patrick’s Day

St Patricks dayIt was a privilege and a pleasure to get to know novelist Thomas McGonigle while at the Times, and it’s been a privilege to keep knowing him ever since.

Recently, University of Notre Dame Press brought out his novel, St. Patrick’s Day: Another Day in Dublin, which is also the recipient of the 2016 Notre Dame Review Book Prize.

“McGonigle’s novel,” the prize committee said, “is a brilliant portrait of the uneasy alliance between the Irish and Irish Americans, the result of the centuries-old diaspora and immigration, which left unsettled the mysteries of origins and legacy.”

McGonigle is a member of literature’s world community.  You discover that right away when you talk to him.  Whether you’re in actual conversation or reading his blog, ABC of Reading, you find that he’s preoccupied with far more important issues than who is on the current bestsellers lists.  Instead, he speaks freely and easily to you about Roberto Calasso, or Julian Rios, or Claude Simon, or some Bulgarian novelist whose name is difficult to pronounce as if they’re all neighbors living on the same street.

And, in sense, they all do live on the same street.  So what did I do on this year’s observance of the venerable Irish saint?

I prepped this interview below for you, my beloveds, which presents Tom’s perspective on his novel and the process behind it, not to mention his larger concerns about the current state and future of literature.

Enjoy.

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***What was the genesis of your St. Patrick’s Day: Another Day in Dublin?  Where does it begin?

All of my books begin with the moment when I saw a blonde girl putting her coat and books into a locker on the second floor of Patchogue High School in my senior year.  I had been looking at a picture history of World War One and must have decided to write a story in which a soldier would think of the girl back home and this boy would die on November 6, 1918. I changed the girl’s last name with the addition of two letters.  The story was published in The Red & Black, the student newspaper.  I waited for Melinda to seek me out.  She did not.  I wrote a second story told this time from her viewpoint…  this was published, and again she did not seek me out. I could say that the writing disease had taken hold of me then.

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A collapsed sun in your pocket: The poetry of Michael Odom

odomI once wrote in this column that Michael Odom’s poetry reminded me in certain aspects—not in every way, of course, because he is not derivative; his voice is truly original and unique—of the poetry of Dylan Thomas.

Startling imagery, unexpected words yoked together by violence, a certain defiant voice … when I read Odom, I’m reminded of  Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle” and “Sullen Art.”

Some of the poetry in Odom’s recent collection Selene possesses that same defiance, and I think these poems may appeal especially to men of a certain age – either those in their early twenties or those in their late 40s (like me).

Why?  Because these two age groups are connected by their relationship to ideals and the hopes they carry for their lives.

The twentysomethings dismiss the 9-t- 5 treadmill and believe that life holds more for them, that they’ll overcome that treadmill soon enough; the fortysomethings dismiss that same treadmill even as they recognize they’ve been walking on it for the past twenty years.

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O little axe of Bethlehem

baby-jesus-guitarIn the year of our Lord, nineteen hundred and eighty-three, a youth humbly approached his special destination — a little music shop in the heart of his city’s downtown.

Inside, he took $188 in crumpled tens and twenties from his pocket.  Then the kindly shop owner reached above his head and took down a cherry-red imitation Les Paul electric guitar — a Japanese knockoff — from a long row of guitars hanging from the ceiling.

When the transaction was ended and the lad emerged from the shop with his guitar (in a very cheap black case), he whispered under his breath:

O Lord, though I’m pimply, though the lenses of my glasses are very thick, though my hair is oily, though I am girl-less … O Lord, please … let me rock.

This is my story.  Well, OK, it didn’t quite happen like that.

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