Redemption Falls, by Joseph O’Connor

by Robert A. Parker

O’Connor is a difficult novelist to appreciate. I tried, and failed, to finish his predecessor novel, Star of the Sea, which told of Eliza Mooney’s family and their voyage from Ireland to New York City at the time of the potato famine. In this work’s opening pages, Eliza is front and center, walking north from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, many years later, just after the Civil War, in search of her brother who has been a drummer boy in that war of rebellion.

However, the author quickly abandons her, and focuses on General James O’Keefe—a Northern hero of the Civil War with a disreputable past—who has been named Acting Governor of the vaguely positioned region called “The Territory” and whose base is the town of Redemption Falls. He is estranged from his wife, Lucia-Cruz McLelland of a prominent New York family, but has enticed her to join him out West; and the tension between them became the initial bedrock to my understanding of this novel.

But O’Connor is clearly interested in more than their relationship. And his goal becomes much more complicated. He is really writing about the complexity of O’Keefe, both his violence and his tenderness, plus the impact on him of the Mooney’s complex world, the Irish experience in America, the undisciplined West, and the residue of emotions from the Civil War.

The opening pages, in fact, distract us from O’Keefe by introducing other significant characters: Jeddo Mooney, the girl Eliza’s brother; Elizabeth, a freed slave; Winterton a former lover of Lucia; and McLaurenson, an outlaw Confederate soldier—as well as the story of O’Keefe’s past, when he was exiled by England to Tasmania, fathered a child, and then arranged a dramatic escape. All of which leaves the reader at sea. What is he to focus on? What do these characters have in common?

As Max Byrd writes in the New York Times, the novel “sprawls across a vague, unmapped space that resembles mid-19th century Montana and has no more linear clarity than a swatted beehive.”

In seeking a common element, one looks beyond these characters being Irish, as well as the unruly atmosphere of the West. More significant seems to be the literary ambition of the author—as if he wishes to create a grand opus. By entering the psyche of these many different characters. And by reaching toward their many disconnected horizons. Plus, he enhances this by exploring many literary styles, from poetry and song to dialect and foreign languages, even to slang and the brash headlines of yellow journalism. As Byrd adds: “On virtually every page, O’Connor’s hyperkinetic prose throws up a dancing screen of rhetoric that obscures both plot and character.”

Unable to get a grasp on what this novel was really about, I even considered abandoning it. But because of O’Connor’s reputation, I became determined to understand what he was all about. And came to a conclusion that he is driven to attain literary fame as much as to achieve an emotional impact. As Terry Eagleton writes favorably about this ambition in The Guardian, “It is a huge disheveled monster of a book, crammed with all matter of typographical stunts, [which] has a venerable Irish pedigree. From Laurence Sterne to Joyce, literary experiment by Irish writers often includes playing around with the book itself as a material object.”

Within that desire for literary exploration, O’Connor makes legitimate reference to the various, and often conflicting, history of the Irish in America. As well as to the variety of human experiences in the chaotic West. Thus, he has made considerable use of valuable research into the post-Civil War era, the American West, and our literary and journalistic past.

But despite the considerable praise he has received from critics like Eagleton, he is too conscious for me of the methods he uses, and for me the literary and structural frills he employs come at the expense of his story.

One senses, moreover, that this novel—as it brings together a violent general, a revengeful outlaw, and a desperate family member—will reach a strong, and perhaps bloody, climax. And it does. And yet, we do not experience this climax directly. Not as we have the travels of Eliza, the outlaw McLaurenson, or the freed slave Elizabeth. Instead, we read subsequent reports of what happened. We are no longer at the scene, even though we were on the way to that final, fatal ambush. As Max Byrd writes, the author achieves “his violent climax…at the cost of immediacy and drama, as if we were observing the action through the wrong end of a telescope.”

But why this change in the narrative structure? It is not clear. Instead of high drama, the drama is muted. Is the reason to be found in the redemption of the title? That is, O’Keefe is not the harsh, cruel general and administrator that so many of his actions betray. That in his attitude toward the boy, as toward his wife when he entices her West, he is someone to empathize with, that somewhere in his soul he is a kind man, even though the temper of many of his actions indicates otherwise. And we realize this contradiction when his final actions bring a sacrifice—and even redemption? It seems to be an effort by the author to create a grand, tragic figure.

Indeed, one of the problems of this novel for me has been not understanding the role of each of the characters, and their relationship to one another. These relationships are slowly revealed, but the delay inhibits my getting into this book. And the revelations at the end are not enough to justify this reticence. In fact, even the major reveal in the very last paragraph does not have for me the impact that the author apparently intended. That is, the shifting narrative structure has kept me too aloof from the events to enable me to feel an emotional tie to any of these characters.

And, no, I am not tempted to seek out more of O’Connor’s work. Which is a pity, since I do share some Irish blood. But I do not share his Irish pursuit of “experiment and exploration,” that Eagleton cites…[where] “bending the rules of realism is as Irish as emigration.” Nor do I share the Irish sense of history that Eagleton calls “dark and fragmented.” I prefer to concentrate instead on a character’s interior, rather than on the confusing and conflicting world outside, and even less on an author’s verbal and ironic pyrotechnics. (March, 2018)

However, the author quickly abandons her, and focuses on General James O’Keefe—a Northern hero of the Civil War with a disreputable past—who has been named Acting Governor of the vaguely positioned region called “The Territory” and whose base is the town of Redemption Falls. He is estranged from his wife, Lucia-Cruz McLelland of a prominent New York family, but has enticed her to join him out West; and the tension between them became the initial bedrock to my understanding of this novel.

But O’Connor is clearly interested in more than their relationship. And his goal becomes much more complicated. He is really writing about the complexity of O’Keefe, both his violence and his tenderness, plus the impact on him of the Mooney’s complex world, the Irish experience in America, the undisciplined West, and the residue of emotions from the Civil War. The opening pages, in fact, distract us from O’Keefe by introducing other significant characters: Jeddo Mooney, the girl Eliza’s brother; Elizabeth, a freed slave; Winterton a former lover of Lucia; and McLaurenson, an outlaw Confederate soldier—as well as the story of O’Keefe’s past, when he was exiled by England to Tasmania, fathered a child, and then arranged a dramatic escape.

All of which leaves the reader at sea. What is he to focus on? What do these characters have in common? As Max Byrd writes in the New York Times, the novel “sprawls across a vague, unmapped space that resembles mid-19th century Montana and has no more linear clarity than a swatted beehive.”

In seeking a common element, one looks beyond these characters being Irish, as well as the unruly atmosphere of the West. More significant seems to be the literary ambition of the author—as if he wishes to create a grand opus. By entering the psyche of these many different characters. And by reaching toward their many disconnected horizons.

Plus, he enhances this by exploring many literary styles, from poetry and song to dialect and foreign languages, even to slang and the brash headlines of yellow journalism. As Byrd adds: “On virtually every page, O’Connor’s hyperkinetic prose throws up a dancing screen of rhetoric that obscures both plot and character.”

Unable to get a grasp on what this novel was really about, I even considered abandoning it. But because of O’Connor’s reputation, I became determined to understand what he was all about. And came to a conclusion that he is driven to attain literary fame as much as to achieve an emotional impact. As Terry Eagleton writes favorably about this ambition in The Guardian, “It is a huge disheveled monster of a book, crammed with all matter of typographical stunts, [which] has a venerable Irish pedigree. From Laurence Sterne to Joyce, literary experiment by Irish writers often includes playing around with the book itself as a material object.”

Within that desire for literary exploration, O’Connor makes legitimate reference to the various, and often conflicting, history of the Irish in America. As well as to the variety of human experiences in the chaotic West. Thus, he has made considerable use of valuable research into the post-Civil War era, the American West, and our literary and journalistic past. But despite the considerable praise he has received from critics like Eagleton, he is too conscious for me of the methods he uses, and for me the literary and structural frills he employs come at the expense of his story.

One senses, moreover, that this novel—as it brings together a violent general, a revengeful outlaw, and a desperate family member—will reach a strong, and perhaps bloody, climax. And it does. And yet, we do not experience this climax directly. Not as we have the travels of Eliza, the outlaw McLaurenson, or the freed slave Elizabeth. Instead, we read subsequent reports of what happened. We are no longer at the scene, even though we were on the way to that final, fatal ambush. As Max Byrd writes, the author achieves “his violent climax…at the cost of immediacy and drama, as if we were observing the action through the wrong end of a telescope.”

But why this change in the narrative structure? It is not clear. Instead of high drama, the drama is muted. Is the reason to be found in the redemption of the title? That is, O’Keefe is not the harsh, cruel general and administrator that so many of his actions betray. That in his attitude toward the boy, as toward his wife when he entices her West, he is someone to empathize with, that somewhere in his soul he is a kind man, even though the temper of many of his actions indicates otherwise. And we realize this contradiction when his final actions bring a sacrifice—and even redemption? It seems to be an effort by the author to create a grand, tragic figure.

Indeed, one of the problems of this novel for me has been not understanding the role of each of the characters, and their relationship to one another. These relationships are slowly revealed, but the delay inhibits my getting into this book. And the revelations at the end are not enough to justify this reticence. In fact, even the major reveal in the very last paragraph does not have for me the impact that the author apparently intended. That is, the shifting narrative structure has kept me too aloof from the events to enable me to feel an emotional tie to any of these characters.

And, no, I am not tempted to seek out more of O’Connor’s work. Which is a pity, since I do share some Irish blood. But I do not share his Irish pursuit of “experiment and exploration,” that Eagleton cites…[where] “bending the rules of realism is as Irish as emigration.” Nor do I share the Irish sense of history that Eagleton calls “dark and fragmented.” I prefer to concentrate instead on a character’s interior, rather than on the confusing and conflicting world outside, and even less on an author’s verbal and ironic pyrotechnics. (March, 2018)

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