Escape From Ireland

Sex, in every costume and combination, is the hot wind that fills the novel's sails.

More Bread or I’ll Appear
By Emer Martin
Houghton Mifflin; 256 pages; $23

If there was ever a surefire formula for the short, naturalistic novel, it’s this: a big Irish Catholic family and a curse. Throw in scheming priests, a blighted countryside, sexual repression, and poverty, and you have all the classic elements of Celtic domestic tragicomedy, as durable a genre as the detective story and one that’s almost as hard to put fresh twists on.

Still, that’s the challenge that Emer Martin sets herself in More Bread or I’ll Appear, her second novel, and though she starts off with all the old ingredients, she manages to make the dish her own by dint of sheer, messy energy and nerve. Only half in control of her material, and possessed by ambitions that never quite add up, Martin takes her literary inheritance and spends it like crazy in a dizzy spree.

She begins at the Irish beginning, as old as Genesis. Poppa’s mad, tucked away in an asylum. Momma’s poor and pious and put-upon. The children run wild in a roaring pack. Behind them, a grinding national history. Ahead, a gloomy future. Above, the Church. Martin fills in this background with lightning speed, spanning years in a sentence or two and cutting so quickly between family members that their features end up on one another’s faces.

Except for Patrick, the only boy child, mother Molly’s four girls have challenging Old World names that seem to come from a ballad by Yeats and grant their bearers an exotic allure and a sense of cultural distinctiveness: Keelin, Orla, Siobhan, Aisling. Martin is out to make myth, such names suggest; to turn on the free-flowing tap of mystic murk that is every Irish writer’s birthright. Uninhibited by America’s multiculturalism, which now demands that no one group ever be allowed to stand for all, Irish novelists still feel free – and possibly even duty-bound – to abstract from the family to the race.

The story takes off with a solemn maternal command, another quasi-legendary touch. In search of jobs and kicks, Molly’s children have scattered around the globe, except for responsible, modest Keelin, the keeper of family solidarity. When wild, sexy Aisling, the red-haired prodigal, drops out of sight while visiting Japan, Molly sends Keelin to find her and fetch her home. The funds for this mission come from Uncle Oscar, a gay New York priest who in turn is sponsored by a wealthy Jesuit lover. In a book concerned with big ideas and archetypes, it’s fair to say that this pair of sleek male clerics, consumed by their love of opera and fine wine, represent an eternal, detached male overclass whose power stems only accidentally from the Vatican. In Martin’s story, women and children are pawns moved about by cynical supermen untouchable in their lofty self-absorption.

Sex, in every costume and combination, is the hot wind that fills the novel’s sails. Keelin’s global wild-goose chase provides a veritable Michelin guide to international eroticism. In Japan, she meets up with cross-dressers and masochists and learns that Aisling’s been passing as a man while bedding every lost soul in sight. In America, Keelin finds one of Oscar’s old lovers, now bedridden with aids, and in Mexico she and Orla go on holiday with a carload of macho lotharios.

Everywhere, Aisling is one step ahead of her, leaving a trail of Irish sensuality and spreading a gospel of polymorphous perversity mixed with a sort of world-beat socialism. Aisling is a wandering prophet, it seems, “history’s escapee,” but Martin lays on her significance too thick, giving her one too many speeches that sound like particularly pretentious excerpts from an old Sinead O’Connor interview: “We aren’t seeking to evolve,” Aisling says at one point, “but forces of environment challenge us and develop us beyond our plain of dreams. Life is infinite when perceived as a continuum, hollow and brutal when we take it in chunks.”

Fortunately, Aisling moody musings aren’t central to the book. Martin’s real business is cramming Keelin’s journey full of hectic incident and color, and the tale that results has the pleasing, random bustle of a well-stocked ant farm at feeding time.

As Molly’s children cross paths around the world, towing friends and lovers and hangers-on, tending the sick and getting sick themselves, and periodically going home to Ireland for morale-boosting visits with the matriarch, a startling image of transience takes shape. Between telephones, credit cards, cheap airline flights, and the permeability of national borders, one family can truly inhabit the whole world these days, meeting, parting, and reuniting with divine disregard for continent and time zone.

Molly’s family’s miniature diaspora, and the larger diaspora of Irish youth, is a peculiarly modern phenomenon: experience gathered, sifted, and repatriated in a constant, open-ended cycle that’s both liberating and confusing. Home is no longer where people come to rest but the motion created by their restlessness.

And this is one restless family that Martin gives us. The children share their father’s “doubting disease,” identified explicitly at one point as obsessive-compulsive disorder. They ritually recite odd thoughts. They worry about left-on ovens and repeatedly return to rooms to make sure doors are locked.

Patrick, who wears rubber gloves to thwart infection, manages to capitalize on his illness by learning to count cards in blackjack during a trip to Las Vegas, but eventually the malady destroys him, sending him back to the scene of a crime that, if he could have brought it off, might have rendered him independent at last. But for this family, independence is a pipe dream, and the same goes for all of Ireland, perhaps. Bogged down for so long in the cultic rhythms of nature and religion, oppression and rebellion, the entire country may suffer from OCD.

Irishness itself is a disease. That’s Martin’s diagnosis, at least, and she offers compelling fictional evidence for it. Joining Keelin in her quest is Orla’s illegitimate son, Shawn, who’s run away from the wealthy American family he was placed with at birth by Oscar, the priest. Shawn is a scab-picking hive of tics, constructing huge, elaborate “nests” from scraps of thread and street litter. He’s building a little homeland in his head, one that’s always disintegrating on him, and though he’s never set foot upon the island where he was conceived, what spurs him on is a dim, ancestral memory. To go back, to go back. It’s the endless Celtic pathology. And the world being round, as Martin’s novel reminds us, even to go away is to go back.

Escape From Ireland