Sunday, December 26, 2010

Irish Eyes

I've been reading Irish lately. I finished Dennis Lehane's The Given Day the other day and immediately picked up Snow in August by Pete Hamill. As has become customary for me this time of year, the holidays and end of the year, I read the "Zooey" portion of Salinger's Franny and Zooey over the past couple of days.

This thematic reading is not by any design. I'd heard a lot about Lehane and had never read any, but picked up The Given Day at Davis-Kidd on the outside bargain tables. I figured there's no losing when you find a 700-page, deckle-edged hardback for $5. It was pretty good. It wasn't great, but it was entertaining with several compelling story lines and many colorful characters. I suppose I was expecting greatness from the author of Mystic River and Gone, Baby, Gone. It was a bit more simply written than I expected, yet it was an epic story of early-20th century Boston and the clashes between Irish, Italian and African American wrapped up in the fight for equality in the Boston police department and among the city's laborers. There is even some baseball thrown in with Babe Ruth popping up from time to time.

I found the Pete Hamill in the used bookstore at the library a couple months ago. I was enthralled earlier this year with his novel Forever and I've read more of his work in the past. Hamill writes with the swiftness and sentimentality of the newspaperman that he is. Snow in August, the story of a friendship between an Irish Catholic boy in Brooklyn and Jewish rabbi so far doesn't disappoint.

Franny and Zooey is comfort food. I've never thought of it as an Irish tale, but in the first part of "Zooey," when Zooey and his mother, Bessie, are having their wonderful bathroom conversation, he implores her to leave him in peace saying, "If I'd wanted this place to fill up with every fat Irish rose that passes by, I'd've said so. Now, c'mon. Get out." I read it every year around this time and I never fail to find something new in it. This time it's the sense of family and the fact that, while Franny is going through her breakdown, Bessie, in her search for understanding and for help, seeks out the still-living brothers. She asks Zooey for help, she calls Buddy and contemplates calling Waker, the priest. Even as Bessie and Zooey are going round and round in the bathroom, and while Zooey is upsetting Franny in the living room, and Zooey condemns older brothers Buddy and Seymour for turning he and his sister into "freaks," the closeness of this family is underscored.

The theme of family is carried through all of these books, again an unintended way for me to read, but a treat nonetheless, especially at this time of year. I've spent whole days the past week holed up with my family, playing games, reading, eating and entertaining. It's what this season is all about and it's a bonus to find it played out in art.