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[whitespace] Gael Force

Ireland's finest drunken author?

By Richard von Busack

ON THE WINDOW of Molly Bloom's, one of San Jose's Irish pubs, is a gilt portrait of one Flann O'Brien (1911-66). The unfamiliar face stymies the conventioneers who wander in for a post-teleconference Guinness. The Emerald Isle coughs up its share of prosers and poseurs, but O'Brien is still, sadly, relatively unknown in the United States, one place where an Irish author can make some real money. This obscurity defies the fact that S.J. Perelman, our funniest literary man, used to praise O'Brien as the writer who made even him laugh.

O'Brien was the author (as the caption in Molly Bloom's window notes) of several novels, including At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman. Today, Illinois' Dalkey Archives vends most of the author's works at popular prices. The nonprofit publishing house (www.centerforbookculture.org) also keeps in print books by figures such as Stanley Elkins, Ishmael Reed and Celine (not Dion)--good company, as you might say.

O'Brien's The Poor Mouth: A Bad Story of the Hard Life (1941) is recommended as the bitterest Hibernian writing since Jonathan Swift died. The Poor Mouth parodies the Gaelic memoir of hard times grubbing for potatoes on the rainy west coast.

While these original memoirs of "rain, famine and ill-luck" are little read today outside of Irish studies classes, they were the direct antecedent to Frank (Angela's Ashes) McCourt's popular memoirs of Limerick ghastliness.

All O'Brien did was turn it up a notch, bringing in sick flatulent pigs, chronic starvation and science-fiction-level quantities of Irish rain, downpours bad enough to tear the hair from your head. "A non-swimmer was none too secure in bed in these times." But it was nothing like the rain in the past. "In my grandfather's time, there were people that never felt dry ground ... but in that time I heard my father praising the good weather and saying it was fine and that there was nothing wrong with it compared with the sky-crucifying that people got and he a young fellow."

The Best of Myles (Dalkey Archives) is an anthology of O'Brien's nearly 20 years of work for the Irish Times. There he wrote the "Cruiskeen Lawn" column under the pseudonym "Myles na Gopaleen." a pen name he reserved for instances when he wanted to do the most damage.

Some of O'Brien's speculations include a proposal that a hit play, The Plough and Stars, ought to be performed until the last actor dropped: "Picture ... as an old man of 70, the sole survivor of the original cast, trying desperately to carry on the play single-handed, muttering all sorts of explanations and blessings on the departed in between his own lines."

The collection also includes a series of tales told at a bus stop, the alarming adventures of "The Brother" of a fellow passenger. "The Brother" is a con man, reprobate, businessman and part-time amateur surgeon. "He gave Charley's kidneys a thorough overhaul, and that's a game none of your doctors would try their hand at ... he had Charley in the bathroom for five hours. Nobody was let in, of course, but the water was goin' all the time ... o a great night's work."

"The Plain People of Ireland" was the name for O'Brien's Greek chorus, customarily interrupting his prose with hearty uncouth laughter: "Sounds of thousands of thighs being slapped and the crack of coarse country braces [suspenders] as the body bends in writhes of mirth." One afternoon, between this imaginary audience and himself, O'Brien described a hallucination prowling his flat: an adorable lemur-faced thing reading his newspapers and playing with the faucets on his sink. The Plain People of Ireland were not so beguiled. It's a wild badger, they warn: "Better go aisy now with them lads. Ate the face off you when you're asleep in the bed. Hump him out of the house before he has you destroyed man. Many's a good man had the neck clawed off him be a badger ... a good strong badger can break a man's arm with one blow of his hind leg ... show that badger the door."

As a life-long resident of Ireland, O'Brien's primary enemy was the kind of imagery flogged on St. Patrick's Day, a grotty stage-Irishness of simpering, sticky nostalgia ("Every time I hear the word 'colorful,'" he wrote, "I reach for my revolver.")

However, the man who headlined one of his columns "Tips for Sots" would appreciate being remembered at a bar any day of the year, let alone March 17, especially when things get bleak at closing time. "The last thing to die in us is hope. Gray carrion soul-mincing hope, the one quality that makes the human creature ridiculous and pathetic above all others."

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Web extra to the March 14-20, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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