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Wild Irish Rogues

John Banville on 'Traveller'

By David Templeton


Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This time out, he takes acclaimed Irish author John Banville to see the odd little thriller Traveller.

"I remember the 'travelers,'" recalls author John Banville, "though back then we all called them 'tinkers' because they'd go about making things out of tin. They'd come along every autumn, at blackberry season, selling cans. They were beggars and scrap-metal dealers and they're still there. They're very tough, rough people ..." He pauses shortly for effect and says, "and nobody knows who they are."

Banville--the celebrated author of numerous books (Athena, Ghosts, The Book of Evidence)--speaks in a low, mellifluous voice, each phrase soaked in a rich glaze of softly accented Irishness. Leaning back in his chair, he commands one's attention, much like the storytellers of old. With seemingly little effort and almost no physical gestures, Banville uses his voice, words, and sharp clear eyes as his tools. In Dublin, Banville is literary editor of the Irish Times. He is visiting the states to promote his crafty and compelling new novel, The Untouchable (Knopf, 1997), the darkly funny "confession" of one Sir Victor Maskell, an elderly, cancer-stricken British aristocrat whose clandestine past as a Soviet spy is suddenly made loudly and annoyingly public. The book, widely praised in Europe, has likewise been stirring up attention hereabouts, and its author seems more than relieved at this stolen opportunity to spend the afternoon at the movies. Banville, it turns out, is a great admirer of American film.

Today's movie--and the cause of his youthful reminiscences--is Traveller, an offbeat love story/thriller about Romany rovers. A mysterious, clannish segment of American society, they descend from early Irish immigrants, and have a tarnished reputation as con artists and thieves. The film's main story concerns Bakki (Bill Paxton), a hardened member of their society, whose heart softens when he tries to swindle a down-and-out waitress (Julianna Margulies). Unfortunately, the film's artful beginning soon gives way to run-of-the-mill shootouts and close-up bloodletting as the con men face off against their crime-world rivals, the "Turks."

"My God, what an immoral film!" Banville exclaims, as the film comes to a close. "It glorifies the traveler way of life in much the same way as the Godfather films glorify a bunch of thugs who go about pretending to be honorable men. Hollywood would never have allowed that, up until the '60s." As we dawdle about inside the theater lobby, waiting for Banville's ride to come whisk him off to a booksigning across town, he continues his rant.

"Hollywood has, I think, a duty to offer the country some sense of itself, some vision of itself, and I don't mean some grand romantic, you know, some John Wayne thing," he smiles.

"But I think it's extraordinary the violent, pessimistic kind of image that Hollywood is being allowed to put out for all America to ingest. Society is not all bad. It's not all Mafiosi slaughtering one another and travelers blowing the bejeezus out of Turks."

Banville's ride has arrived. "Perhaps you should call me later," he suggests, shaking my hand. "I think there's a bit more to discuss here, don't you?"

When Banville calls the next morning, there is a dollop of excitement in his voice. "I saw a marvelous movie last night, here in my hotel room," he brightly confides. It was The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, starring John Wayne and James Stewart. "I've seen it before, of course, but it was wonderful to see it again. It's a marvelous film about what we were getting to yesterday, the American Problem."

"Which American Problem is that?" I ask.

"Well," he replies, thoughtfully," "from Thoreau and Emerson right through John Dewey and up to Richard Rorty, the great American problem--in philosophy and social thought--has been what to do about the wilderness.

"When the first white, non-Latin Europeans arrived on the East Coast, they were constantly aware of the great wilderness stretching away toward the west. Emerson was constantly going back to this, in a worried sort of way, and he didn't know what to do about it.

"What to do about the wilderness?" he says rhetorically. "What to do about the people who tamed the wilderness once civilization arrived? The figure played by John Wayne in Liberty Valance, and in The Searchers as well, is essentially an anti-social phenomenon, because he's fought the wilderness for so long that his own wildness has been allowed to come out.

"And when the wilderness begins to disappear, there's suddenly nowhere in society for him. So civilization is going to be left with all these wild men. Just as Irish society was left with the tinkers," Banville says, coming full circle, "who have now immigrated to America and set up this Mafia here."

"So are you saying that all of Ireland's wild men are now wreaking havoc in America?" I wonder.

"Certainly not. We still have wild men of a different kind," Banville tosses back, supported by a merry chuckle that trails off suddenly into a long, thoughtful silence.

"I've been living in Ireland the past 30 years, you know," he ultimately continues. "I've watched our society tear itself to pieces. "There are two kinds of myths," he says. "The myth that sustains, such as Robin Hood, and the myth that destroys, such as, say, Bonnie and Clyde. Northern Ireland is a perfect example of a society in which these two kind of mythologies are in constant battle. One could make a John Wayne movie about the north of Ireland now, if one had the talent and the subtlety and the skill to do it."

After another pause, he adds, enthusiastically, "And I look forward to someday seeing it."

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