There are moments during my interview with Dermot Healy when it feels like I am talking to one of his fictional characters, perhaps Tom The Blackbird Feeney, who flits in and out of the strange, spiralling narrative of Long Time, No See, the Irish authors startling new novel. As with Feeney, there is something of the eternally mischievous child about Healy, though he approaches the art of writing with all the seriousness of a religious vocation.
His most recent book of poems, A Fools Errand, took 12 years to write, while Long Time, No See was started back in 2000. It was actually finished and ready for the publisher in 2002, says Healy, laughing, but I held back because there was something nagging away at me about the narrative, something not right. Eventually, I sat down and took out all the dream sequences. I really liked them, but I felt I was avoiding the real issue. I wanted to let in other realities without recourse to dreamscape.
And yet the narrative has a certain dreamlike quality, not least because, for the most part, it follows the drift of everyday speech as it is conducted in an isolated coastal community in the windblown north-west of Ireland. As a reader, you have to surrender to a vernacular dialogue in which hardly anything is said outright and almost everything is hinted at. I have never read anything like it before.
When I was writing, he says, I was trying to let the dialogue kick in the way it is spoken where the novel is set, which is just out of Sligo a bit on the verge of Donegal. In a way, I was trying to stay out of it and let the reader take over and run with it. So I would often put the meaning of a passage in, then take it out again.
The book is, he says, a bit of a curved mystery. Or, to be more precise, it is an episodic, slowly unfolding narrative in which there are many curves and many mysteries, most of which are left unresolved: like life, in fact. The tale is told by a character known as Mister Psyche, a teenager touched by trauma and trapped for the novels duration in that hinterland between grieving and moving on. He doggedly builds a dry stone wall, helps his father on odd jobs, and looks after two anarchic pensioners, the Blackbird and Uncle Joe-Joe, fetching them their weekly supply of Malibu and cigarettes from the local supermarket. The narrative takes a sudden swerve when a bullet hole appears in Uncle Joe-Joes front window, though how or why it got to be there is never quite explained. Long Time, No See is not a book that provides answers, and even the questions it asks are elliptical. Time passes, people get on with everyday life, get drunk, get ill, fall out, make up and persevere. The seasons change but the wind from the ocean is a constant, likewise the mysterious undercurrents of life in this parochial, but universal, community.
Though stylistically very different, Long Time, No See reminded me of John McGaherns final novel, the elegiac That They May Face the Rising Sun, which also broke with conventional narrative to chart the rhythms of life in a rural Ireland undergoing rapid change. McGahern once told me that all good writing is suggestion. In many ways, Long Time, No See is a book of suggestion. I left out all motives in the book, says Healy. Even when a character, say, bends down to put flowers by a spot on the roadside, you have the suggestion of what happened rather than it being spelt out.
Healy, who looks perpetually windblown himself, with his shock of white hair and matching beard, has lived with his wife, Helen, on the very edge of the Atlantic in Ballyconnell, County Sligo, for just over 20 years. A Fools Errand is set there, a single long poem written in formally exact stanzas that appear on the page like wings. Its central motif is the coming every October of a huge flock of barnacle geese from Greenland. I look out on the field near the house, Healy says, and there they are like a load of nuns in a cloister walking around with their beads.
To his great surprise, Healy has been shortlisted for this years Irish Times poetry prize alongside Seamus Heaney, who once dubbed him the heir of Patrick Kavanagh. You can see why, though Healys writing about the natural world is more hallucinatory than Kavanaghs poetry. Healy once said of his own poetry: A lot of people are able to see better, see whats there, but I might see what I think is there.
Healys four collections of poetry are published by the Gallery Press and edited by its owner, Peter Fallon. Like the home he lives in, Dermot is out there on his own, says Fallon. Its hard to put him up against other Irish writers in fiction or poetry, so singular is his voice and his way of seeing. When you think of the Irish poetry tradition, for instance, he doesnt spring to mind. He stands apart. Hes not on the team. He plays a game of his own, where different rules apply, and yet he commands his place. When you read his work, you have to adjust the straight line of the hierarchy just to fit him in.
Healy was born in Finea, County Westmeath in 1947, but the family relocated to Cavan near the border with Northern Ireland when he was a young child. In his extraordinarily rich memoir, The Bend for Home (1996), he evokes the sense of displacement he felt back then in a passage that recounts how he and one of his sisters set off in the night to try to walk back to Finea.
Initially, I didnt take to Cavan at all, he says, smiling ruefully and shaking his head. It was a leap from a village to a town, from a familiar world to an alien one. My father was a guard (an Irish policeman) and he fell ill and died soon after we moved to Cavan. I never had the traumas of Catholicism, but I did get thrown out of college by the priests for going to see the Bachelors [a 1960s Irish pop group] when I should have been studying.
The novelist Pat McCabe called The Bend for Home probably the finest memoir … written in Ireland in the last 50 years. The childhood and troubled adolescence recounted in it often seem as surreal as the events that underpin Healys fiction, and the characters just as colourful. At one point, early on, Healy alerts the reader to his tendency to exaggerate. Does he regard memoir as another kind of fiction writing? No. There is a line between the two. In fiction, something that did not happen has to happen. In memoir, something that happened has to happen all over again. And by making it happen all over again, of course, you somehow change it. So, theyre both tricky, but in different ways.
Healys teenage years seem to have been chaotic. He went to London for the first time, aged 15, lodging with various aunts, and working in bars and shops. At 18, he dropped out of university in Dublin before completing his degree – I succumbed to a fit of shyness in the exams – and returned to London to work as a security guard, patrolling empty factories. I was reading all the time and writing poems. I lived way out near Heathrow and I have this vivid memory of sitting on a deserted factory floor in the dead of night reading Dylan Thomas.
It was out of those memories of building sites and factory floors, bars and greasy spoons, that his novel Sudden Times emerged in 1999. Even by Healeys standards, it is an intense book; the protagonist, Ollie Ewing, is a damaged young man driven back home to Ireland from London, and almost to distraction, by the voices raging in his head. The city he escapes from is Shane MacGowans London, populated by pimps, psychopaths, poets and chancers. The Sligo he returns to is W. B. Yeatss worst nightmare, a shabby town where the locals coexist with scruffy students and wide-eyed tourists, and everyone seems to be on the make. Nothing is dependable, not even the authorial voice: the story is told twice, once as a hallucinatory nightmare, then again when Ewing is cross-examined by an English barrister, whose language is both precise and scathingly dismissive.
Caught between two worlds, two lives, two cultures, Ewing is a kind of haunted nowhere man. Did Healy base him on characters he had encountered while working in London?
Maybe. You pick bits and pieces up along the way. But, you know, I would have been a bit that way myself. Picking up the voices now and again. Ive experienced the odd hallucination of reality: out of nowhere comes the car that hits the bike. The feeling of: did that just happen? Or the bits of conversation that play in your head like a snatch of an old pop song that you cant get rid off. Hangovers can give you that feeling of an altered reality. And, maybe life, he adds, his face creasing up in laughter, is one big hangover.
For many of his readers, myself included, 1997s A Goats Song remains his greatest novel. In it, he tackles destructive love, alcoholism and – one of his recurring themes – the problem of not belonging. There are two unforgettable characters in the book: Jack Ferris, a blocked playwright whose drinking is epic and destructive, and the older Jonathan Adams, a former RUC sergeant whose world threatens to implode after he is captured on camera savagely beating civil rights demonstrators in Derry in 1968. Ferris falls for Adamss daughter, Catherine, and they live for a while in Belfast, where their all-or-nothing, drink-fuelled romance starts to unravel against a backdrop of escalating sectarian violence. It is a novel that tumbles along on its own fierce momentum, by turns tender and intense.
A Goats Song is one of the big Irish novels, says Anne Enright, author of The Gathering, which won the Booker prize in 2007. Its a wrangle, an existential tussle, one of those books that makes its own language.
Although very different in form and tone from the novels that preceded it, Long Time, No See shares with them an intensity of vision and a gift for expressing heightened reality that is utterly singular in contemporary fiction. Healy names his influences as Borges, Miroslav Holub, Eudora Welty, Liam OFlaherty and, above all, Kafka. He taught me a lot about the normal and the abnormal, and the distance between them. But, you couldnt really be influenced by Kafka; hes too individual. Hes out there by himself. You get the jump in the feet when you read certain passages by him. Thats the mark of truly great writing, he says, seriously. It gives you the jump in the feet.