on this story
Literature as Pick-up Schtick or Spirit Feel
by Jeanne McDonald
Remember that game you used to play when you were kids, before you discovered kissing, cigarettes and booze? You'd write the first paragraph of a story, then give the last line to somebody else, who'd write the next section without seeing the beginning of yours, and so on around the room. It was sort of like gossipa story based on hearsay and details, with various surprising twists.
Ladies' Night at Finbar's Hotel (Harvest, $14) uses pretty much the same formula. Editor Dermot Bolger starts the book with a bogus gossip column from the Irish Times: "The literati, glitterati, and...'cliterati' were out in low-cut force last night for the reopening of that unique Dublin institution, Finbar's Hotel." The twist is that the seven chapters that comprise this "novel" are written by seven well-known Irish female writers, but it's left to the reader to guess what was written by whom: Emma Donoghue, Eilis Ni Dhuibhne, Kate O'Riordan, Ann Haverty, Maeve Binchy, Clare Boylan, or Deirdre Purcell.
Judging from the back cover photo, the authors, wearing bathing suits and frolicking in a frothy jacuzzi, might not have taken their charge too seriously, and their plots show it. For example, in "Tarzan's Irish Rose," Nellie, an aging ex-movie star, goes to Dublin to beg for a part in a movie. Penniless, she maneuvers her way into the penthouse at Finbar's, which gives her access to a limousine. The driver informs her that a tiger has escaped from the zoo, and on her return from her failed audition, she encounters the animal rummaging in the garbage at the hotel's delivery entrance and takes him to her room. That episode irritates me as much as Pat Conroy's theatrical inclusion of a choosy, face-eating tiger in The Prince of Tides. Both stories sound as if they've been concocted by eight-year-old boys.
The book is supposed to be a lighthearted exploration of sin and salvation, but there's an underlying darkness to it. The stories deal with a woman trying to get pregnant by her best friend's husband, a timid wife relieved to learn that her husband is a cross-dresser rather than an adulterer, and a sexually promiscuous nun. The Times Literary Supplement says, "...Ladies' Night hits at the shallowness of current social pretensions and offers a cautious optimism about women's lives today." I should say so. Actually, I think the authors were having a bit of fun with the editor. I think they had some drinks in the jacuzzi, then went home and knocked off their stories in a few hours. It is in fact more fun to read the authors' names than their stories, and even more entertaining to try to pronounce them.
Where Ladies' Night fails in credulity, a compelling first novel about truth in spirituality by Rhian Ellis, After Life (Viking, $23.95) makes the impossible seem real .
The next time you drive out Alcoa Highway toward the airport, look for a little house just off the road with a sign in the window that reads: "Palms read while you wait." I love that sign. Every time I see it, I wonder how many mediums are operating in Knoxville. Plenty of people consult them. I have several perfectly stable friends who maintain annual standing appointments with the local psychic, Bobby Drinnon; and a woman I know in Charlottesville is still looking for the rich but crippled man a fortune teller saw in her future more than 15 years ago. But the occult has always gotten a bad rap, beginning with the Bible. Deuteronomy 18:10-11 says: "Let no one be found among you...who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead."
Ellis' narrator, Naomi Ash, follows in the footsteps of her psychic mother and becomes "registered" to be a medium in the bleak New York hamlet of Train Line. Naomi is not so much an unreliable narrator as she is an insecure girl wedged somewhere between truth and fakery. Her mother, she says, "began in honesty, and ended in fraud," while she herself "began in fraud and ended in something at least close to truthfulness." Although Naomi stretches the truth to accommodate the desperation of those seeking connections with dead relatives, she sometimes actually does make contact. As complicated as Naomi might be, her deepest secret is the murder of her former lover, Peter, the discovery of which makes gloomy Train Line seem even gloomier. "Eve tempted Adam," observes Naomi, "and because of this humans have lived ever since in a state of sorry exile from the Garden they believe is home. But some early spiritualists figured out how to get back in." In the end you are almost convinced that Naomi has found the way as well. Almost.
September 7, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 36
© 2000 Metro Pulse