Songdogs, and Fishing the Sloe-Black River, by Colum McCann

Exile, Returns

The search for who we are often take us on a journey out and back. We look outward first to our parents for clues about what we started with, what we have been given; we look back to ourselves to consider what is unique. A sadness pervades Songdogs, the debut novel by Colum McCann: its narrator’s personal quest for identity is marred in both directions.

The novel begins with 23-year-old Conor Lyons returning to Ireland, ostensibly to pick up his green card, after five years on the road looking for his mother, who abandoned him and his father when Conor was 12. He finds his father ailing, unkempt, and obsessively fishing the polluted stream nearby for a giant salmon. It is obvious that time has mellowed Conor. His last act upon leaving Irealnd had been to throw the ten-pound note offered to him back at his father. Now he offers to buy groceries, give his father a bath, help him up, anything perhaps to get closer, and to find out more about his mother. What he learns is that his mother might have thrown herself into the sea, in which case Conor’s search has been both sad and futile.

The present, however, is just one of three strands that McCann weaves; the parents’ past takes up much of the book’s first half. Conor’s father is born to a madwoman and a soldier who dies in WWI. Abandoned at the edge of a cliff, the boy is found by two eccentric Protestant women who raise him and then managed to drown once he’s reached his teens. A camera found under their bed provides him with his only sense of mission in life. He eventually leaves Ireland to take photographs of the Spanish Civil War. After the war he seems bent on seeing the world until he’s stopped in Mexico by the dark-eyed 17-year-old Juanita who spontaneously poses for him. Their eventual marriage proves tragic: he languishes in Mexico, and she languishes everywhere else. After several years they set off for San Francisco where a magazine has offered him a job as a photographer. Immediately upon leaving Mexico, Juanita falls ill, to be nursed to health by a woman in San Francisco named Cici with whom she becomes friends. By some quirk the San Fransisco job switches to New York. On the way across the country they get bogged down in Wyoming, Cici’s home, where Cici attempts suicide. By the time they get to New York, enough time has elapsed that the offer is gone. More years go by before the two arrive back in Ireland where at age 41 Juanita gives birth to Conor. Out of place, alienated from her husband, and finally humiliated when he publishes his collection of provocative photos of her, she disappears.

As he grows up, Conor suffers from the loss of his mother. He becomes ever more at odds with his father — “Ask my bollocks” becomes about the only thing he’ll say to him — until he eventually leaves. In looking for his mother, Conor retraces many of his father’s footsteps — Mexico, San Fransisco, Wyoming. He settles in Wyoming where he lives alone in a shack, seemingly immune to the need for intimate contact. At the end of the book, Conor’s father tells him, “You learn finally that some things aren’t meant to heal.” The words have a deep effect on Conor. The words are an anti-epiphany: Conor suddenly learns that he has nothing more to learn. He has discovered little on the road except some of the facts about his parents. He has nothing he can take back to his Wyoming cabin with him.

The book’s ending leaves one with a sense that McCann could have done more. If things aren’t meant to heal, then both father and author are off the hook. What we realize, but Conor doesn’t seem to, is that his parents had nothing in common except a mutual attraction. His father’s dreams destroyed his family, and now he fishes for an imaginary salmon that Conor tells him he also sees. If this gesture illustrates that the quest for the grail, rather than its attainment, redeems us as individuals, then the cost of redemption is the lives of those closest to us. Perhaps now Conor is free to pursue his own dreams, but we have little sense of what those would be. The title refers to a Native American myth about coyotes howling the universe into being. It is clear, however, that his own beginnings concern Conor. We don’t know what has been going on in his head; like his father, he has been drifting, and he will probably continue to do so. His search for identity has gone outward and stalled, has left him lost and alone.

If the ending is less than it could be, there is much that succeeds in this book. McCann is able to hold our attention with a mixture of lyrical writing, a subtle sense of mystery, and nicely rendered characters in Conor’s cantankerous father and Cici, an aging hippie living on memories and morphine. He also has a good ear for dialogue:

“You know what someone once said to me, Dad?”

“What’s that?”

“They said memory is three-quarters imagination and all the rest is lies.”

“That’s a load of codswallop, that is. That’s horseshit taught by flies. Who said that?”

“Just a friend.”

“Talking through his arse.”

I sat on the edge of his bed. I surprised myself when I just summoned it up. “Listen, Dad. Why did ya do that to Mom?”

“What?”

“You know.”

“What?” he said. He moved a little.

“Why did ya let it happen?” I said. “With the photos.”

“Ah, Jaysus, is that what this is all about?”

“I’m just asking. Why did ya . . . ?”

“Can’t a man forget?”

“Don’t think so.”

He was quiet for a moment, looking at his teacup. “And ya know what someone once said to me,” he said, pointing his forefinger at me. “Don’t know who the fuck it was, but he had it right — he said that, when you come into a rich man’s house, the only place to spit is in his face.”

It is in his short story collection, Fishing the Sloe-Black River, that McCann’s talent emerges more clearly. Free from the novel’s melancholy theme, his writing becomes playful, exuberant. The stories are told from diverse perspectives: an Irish woman smuggling herself across the U.S.-Canada line to look for her sister; a fish gutter in California caring for his ailing lover; a paraplegic youth in Ireland; a Texan. Here is a young writer flexing his narrative muscles, turning nicely lyrical phrases: a “dirge of blind children” press their heads between the bars of a children’s home; one girl, “her hair a shock of orange,” thrashes her head against the bars (“Stolen Child”); “bucketfuls of winter sun” come down on a day of tragedy (“Along the Riverwall”); a “tribute of phlegm” (“Cathal’s Lake”).

In “Step We Gaily, On We Go,” we meet characters who are similar to the father and mother in Songdogs. The aging Irishman here, Flaherty, a former boxer and trainer, is a kind of Kwik-Wash Robin Hood who steals women’s dresses as presents for his wife Juanita. She doesn’t like them so he hangs them on the doorknobs of the young women in his complex. What we eventually learn is that, like her same-name counterpart in Songdogs, Juanita deserted him years earlier. Several other stories likewise contain a certain amount of suspense, a surprise twist, and an element of the bizarre. In “From Many, One,” a young husband talks about his wife’s habit of painting images on quarters with a tiny brush: “The eagle sometimes had these weird multi-colored wings. Sometimes there was a small picture — a television, a radio tower, a car — on the eagle’s chest.” The coins become the means by which he learns how his wife spends her afternoons while he’s putting in 10- and 12-hour days at the lab. “Stolen Child” depicts the marriage of a blind African-American girl to a paraplegic Vietnam vet whose gray beard descends to his stomach. When we come to “A Word in Edgewise,” a monologue by an elderly Irish woman who is making up her sister’s face for a “big journey,” we have some sense of what that journey really is.

The title story is a brief sketch — a word portrait — of an Irish town whose exiled young people are noticeable by their absence. The women fish the river without any luck while the men lose another football game. Several stories display the author’s sense of the symbolic. “A Basket Full of Wallpaper” tells of a Japanese man named Osobe who emigrates to Ireland where he continually denies that he experienced the bombings of Hiroshima or Nagasaki. He opens up a wallpapering business and employs the young narrator. Upon Osobe’s death, the narrator’s father enters Osobe’s house. It seems strangely small. He cuts a knife into the walls and finds layer upon layer of wallpaper, wallpaper at least a couple of feet thick. In the last story, “Cathal’s Lake,” an Irish farmer associates the newborn swans that he digs out of the mud with casualties in Northern Ireland. “It’s a sad day when a man has to dig another swan from the soil. The radio crackles and brings Cathay news of the death as he lies in bed and pulls deep on a cigarette, then sighs.

“Fourteen years to heaven, and the boy probably not even old enough to shave. Maybe a head of hair on him like a wheat field. Or eyes blue as thrush eggs.”

This review appeared in the Boston Book Review in 1995.

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