Greater than a story: The Lesser Bohemians by Eimer McBride


When many hear the world “Ireland,” thoughts of many  rise with tedious predictability: border, violence, sexual repression, drunks.  Eimear McBride’s new novel, The Lesser Bohemians at once engages and shatters these stereotypes.

McBride uses the modernist style to bring the reader inside the self of her main character, Eily, as the 18-year-old woman crosses her own borders: from childhood to independence; from Ireland to England; from innocence to experience; from loneliness to love.  Her language  and insight are at times obscure but more often breathtaking, bracing and brilliant.  The reader experiences the world of Eily from inside herself, almost as if the reader has become a dissociated personality of the character.   McBride captures the essential nature of being young, unschooled, and protected but venturing into a wider world filled with the beauty of unknown art and literature, the challenges of education, and the hazards of sexual innocence.   Eily asks herself, when she visits an art gallery “Seek to feel but think instead and wonder if that’s wrong I’m a God’s fair innocent after all when it comes to galleries too.”; and the reader is immediately returned to one’s own initiations.  Eily in the initial stage of the novel is searching for her identity:”  Why am I. Why am I not. Where’s even the way to could? I’m not lost. Or not lost much. Lonely. It is that and I don’t know what to do.” As she moves through her first months at a London Drama School she acknowledges: “tried by the weight of all I don’t know.”

As she moves through that first year away from Ireland and engages in a relationship with a man whose name is not revealed until well into the novel, a famous actor, more than twice her age, constricting his life, nonetheless, to an untidy bedsit, Eily confronts her own demons: “Thy will be done. Satan under every skin. Skinful under all our skin.”  Her sexual initiation begins from a place of fear and shame” To spite myself, for him,  To hurt myself. I open my thighs saying Lads, do anything. Nothing matters and it is nothing…Shame fuses to silence letting the night maraud.While like watching TV, I watch. , killing bit by bit the useless hope of not being this girl I was. Am. She is…” And yet, Eily continues the journey of transformation from a shy Irish girl of the 1990’s (“Ireland is what it is. Sealed in itself, like me…”) into a woman who enjoys and even needs sensual and sexual fulfillment:  “Strange to my skin, him kissing somewhere else. Stranger to be on the outside, recreating its taste…”  Another achievement of McBride in this novel is to write with ferocious clarity about Eily’s emerging sexuality and her pleasure.

McBride moves to a more conventional narrative style, without losing the poetic cadence that appears natural to her, as the novel explores the love story itself. Perhaps, McBride is allowing her prose style to reflect  how Eily has moved from her lonely confusion and sense of isolation into  the satisfactions and pathos of an actual relationship which must exist or fail to exist on more levels than the purely physical or sensual.  Eily is permitted to articulate her own wisdom, “the opposite of love is despair” while retaining her haunting perception.  This transition of narrative style creates a less thrilling engagement of the reader but does not diminish the work.  Instead, McBride has creatively employed narrative technique to amplify the characters experience.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review. Notwithstanding, McBride’s novel remains, to date, my reading highlight of the year.

Watch your language….

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A small child, her hair the color of the abundant Fionnan, the wild moor grass climbing the hills  dwarfing her; eyes, like the grey horizon harnessing the gathering fury, she stands solid and silent in the  gusting wind, under open sky, endless buttermilk and dust. And the others taunt her for speaking her Irish words.  The wreath of branches round her neck smells like dirt and cold; it scratches her pale skin through the dress handed down to her from her sister, Bridget, just above the place where her Miraculous Medal rests. The jeers jab her consciousness, but she gazes upon the sheep on the slope aside the school; links  her look with her brother, wary, sly, gathered  in the last row of the circlet with Bridget and Mary and Tommy and the other valiant ones who would rather wear the wreath themselves  than shame her for her honor and her words.

A lifetime later, in another world, where the lilting words spill freely from her mouth to spouse and dearest friend, if she should choose;  when she will not teach her own small child her cherished Irish tongue, she confesses this tale.

It breeds in her child’s imagination.

In a small and darkened corner of a large fragmented city, concrete and black top  intermittently receive  the sun, interrupted by hard, brown dirt sprouting patchy grass and clover.  Separate places set aside for Irish and Italian and for Polish; for the Catholic and the Protestant and the Jew;for  black and white, and “yellow.” The mother’s tale conceives the dismantling of boundaries.  Born childhood notions that defiance and resistance is a prideful means to meet injustice; delivers her to hope that words engaged in the cause of fairness could change the world.

And that child grows into a woman who cannot fail to  break the mother’s heart.

Another small child, her hair kissed golden by uncounted days of summer sunlight spent capaciously under  bountiful skies, widens her blue eyes in delighted exuberance, her dextrous shape gliding across the field.  Sunday morning ritual not a substitute religion. No  rote chants clutter her penetrating mind. The  mother hails the daughter from the sidelines,no convention to confine her regard.  Her granny, silent, watchful, and not approving, whispers words of prayer that the child will find the path. The young player stumbles and then quickly falls hard  on the fresh mown  field, limbs all tangles,  her eyes spilling her own distress..

The words she utters, and what language, we will hear another day…

Not your father’s barista: A Coffee in Berlin

Against a hypnotic soundtrack, A Coffee in Berlin , always with humor and often with tenderness, demonstrates the inadequacy of both compassion and apology as salve to the wounds, personal and political, those we glibly categorize  as “just part of growing up” and those we justly brand evil and monstrous,through the eyes of an alienated twenty -something who can’t even manage to procure a  coffee in Berlin.

Young Nikko is neither hero nor anti-hero, but a young man seemingly lost in directionless motion, holding on to the privileges of his life ( family allowance, leisure, drugs, alcohol, sex, companionship) without  forming any great attachment to anything.  His is a  youth unburdened by responsibility but also devoid of promise, neither littered with belief nor sketched with direction.  He applies intelligence against authority which enables him to distinguish the absurd and inequitable from the bullying and  illegitimate but he seems unable to engage emotion to match his perception.  Nor is able, when he finds himself the offender, to direct his encounters to resolution.

Nikko passively inhabits a world which exists in the shadow of Hollywood creations and Washington power plays, as evidenced by his mimicing actor friend and the anti- US graffiti spattered about the city.

More poignantly, Nikko apparently cannot find his place in this landscape through which he travels unsuccessfully seeking a cup of coffee,haphazardly, at times, the phlegmatic wanderer, observing but ineffectually engaging others.  His contacts:  the neighbor, the old school mate, the buddy, the drug dealer, the thugs, the father, the probation officer, the bartender,  – each like a painted pony on the merry-go-round invite engagement, but Nikko avoids connection.  Filial attachment, even gratitude,is inoperative.  Nikko is immune to sentimentality. He demonstrates neither moral, ethical nor legal concerns for conformity with social standards.  While he can own the harm he caused a woman whom he bullied as a child, he acknowledges he cannot understand how she felt, and he refuses a new connection either in intimacy or in her own complex drama of angry behaviors.

Nikko is, however, drawn to connect with the old woman who offers only sandwiches and comfortable seating.  The viewer questions whether this kinship is born of some understanding which the young and the old can share about the limits of dreams.

Nikko’s other connection is presaged by a darkly humorous “film within a film.”  Nikko wanders into a movie set filming a cloying sentimental and savagely revisionist World War II drama wherein a SS officer falls in love with a Jewish woman whom he hides, becoming her savior and, at the fall of Berlin, himself, the persecuted.  Later, as an old and failing drunk attached himself to Nikko, the elder recalls Kristallnact, and what Berlin was like, through his eyes as a child.

We leave Nikko with his  coffee in Berlin, and we are, all of us, contemplating: To be a twenty-something, carrying the legacy of Kristallnact;  To be human, feeling adrift; To have the goal, only, of a coffee in Berlin.



Whose face it was I saw today, white vapors collected amid clearest blue,  skyward atop crashing sea?  Was it delirium of sunlight allowed the fleeting visage in that overhead expanse? Tender face filled with pain but calling, no, not crying, and was it to me alone, or others, likewise pleasuring in the autumnal generosity like a summer day? I could see you, but could not hear your call above thundering waves, so high and white, magnificent, delivering surfers and their boards  to all the seagulls and plovers to whom the  sands have been returned for these many days and weeks and months to come – nor do I know your face.  Can there be, already and so soon,  so many friends, I need to look to faces in the skies for they are vanished from the places we so loved and only I still walk upon?

Years, decades, last century, a small child by her bicycle in a deserted alleyway, bleeding from a tarnished fender and discarded glass among the stones and brambles and the broken asphalt, the urban garden, watched vapors gather into a beatific vision, so filled was her little mind and heart and sense of candlelight and choirs and the scent of sacred incense.  She stood shaking in the wintry wind defying expectations until darkness, encroaching, goaded her to, disappointed, cycle home  breathing earthly air and living still.

More near, upon the blackness of a distant shore at the edge of western history, she spied another face within the mottled skies and heard the songs of that peacock sea brimming then with promise that if she closed her eyes and studied not the skies or surf or volcanic stones spinning urgently beneath her, but the swell of her own heart and mind, the sounds of her children playing, she could find justice, a companion and a guide, like the shifting vapors, fleeting to discern, and yet essential.

for love of god

for love of  god, so many slain across the miles and still today.  the zealot in his practiced way keeps holy all the corners of his world.  sunup, sundown, midday, midnight, a ritual, a code that can be known, recited and repeated and recorded and itself revered, as if it,the ritual, the code, the canon of those things that must be holy, delivers sanctuary.   the holy man will never hear the gnashing of the teeth and tearing of the flesh upon the battlefields or in the tenements and old age homes or on the streets even in the curtained dreams of the powdered and the pampered congregations that flock to the worship halls, the temples and the churches giving of their riches or their poverty to something certain that they may  clutch through the long and frightening nights and desperate days when wars are fought for  love of god.

for love of god, she is cast away, among the shunned, her name not spoken; no other creed can be for them as good as their own: any children born will not be blood of this family, though they have the same dark crescent shape in the brown color of  the eye.  nearly, above all else, family is  holy, to be honored, gloried, cherished manifest power and security, prosperity, unity,the living demonstration of the goodness of the natural order. no forgiveness, only banishment, for she who chose to take a step away, to give her love,to break the code, to make a life with one who has a different creed, to place her own happiness, her self, above community, above the love of god.

for love of god, he held the light of life within his hands and then ended it.  piously, he spoke the words he learned when he became a man, calling out all honor and praise to the powerful being, but secretly he was shamed,  he felt the thrill of power and of control. absolution:  all those days and nights he had fevered in fear; all the times he had watched, helpless, as the enemy had unjustly harmed the innocent in his way.  a life extinguished. power gained. wealth advances.  absolution. all those many days and nights provisos of the creed disregarded, an act, a life, a gift, for love of god.

for love of god, they gather at the wedding and the funeral and the birthright. the first estate takes center stage and recites well-known verses ascribing meaning to tired phrases that sound old and common. in chic hotels, in firehalls, in cemeteries, in cozy parlours, the great moments of a life are clouded by the creed.  the preaching zealot distracts, frightened that he is without words to reach these primal moments, for in his time of rehearsing and rehashing and reshaping his ritual, he has abandoned the essence of connection and of living for his love of god.


the meadow


it was only when i gained the clearing, i noticed i had lost you.

stones and rocks disguised the trail,

forged a grainy weave

leaden rock against  scarlet leaf,

 periwinkle stone glistening in the sun

 like a mislaid bead of tanzanite. 

regard for a misplaced step grew greater than  wonder at  abundant life along the tour.

acoustic ambrosia, aural hypnosis

 medley deep of forest life

it’s true. many voices harmonized early conversations.

 fatigue, strain, disquiet silenced notes of song until the silence became accompaniment.

in the silence i never noticed you had gone.

 now i stand alone in the meadow.

of course, i can continue on my own.

but the sunlight urges forgiveness.

will you walk with me once again.

Remembering Earl


There are nights when only the wolves are silent and only the moon howls.

George Carlin

My friend Earl died last night.  I feel the loss as the cold and darkness which comes when a bright light is extinguished.

I met Earl  in 1980.  Some of those who influenced him also became part of my life, others remained unknown.  In the main, the forces which shaped his life and made him the uncommon man he was would never be part of my life.

 He smoldered with a kind of rage he commanded to compel justice for  the underdog.  Appearing humorless to the passerby,Earl had a boundless sense of fun. Capable of enormous personal austerity, Earl was tremendously generous  to those in need, to those with want, in his family, to his friends, to those in his community, to those in his charge, to strangers, even at times, towards his adversaries.  His was not merely a generosity of dollars,but of spirit and heart, of time and thought, of physical labor and anonymous offering.

Through the years, I came to understand that Earl was not an acquired taste. He could be polarizing.  He was one of those rare individuals who remained fully and visibly himself.  One did not need to venture a guess as to Earl’s opinion,he would state his beliefs honestly and openly.  He despised hypocrisy. As such,he had his detractors; there were many who expected a more “diplomatic” man. But,  Earl was a flagrant progressive democrat in those long gone days when it was fashionable until the last moments of his consciousness, and proudly so.He simply could not be anything else.  Earl was authentic.  He lived in accord with his principles while living well.

In my life, Earl was like an older brother or watchful cousin, certainly more than a friend.  When we met, his life was settled and established, he with a daughter not much younger than myself.  Where his domain was neat, organized, structured, well regulated, predictable, mine must have appeared the opposite.  Yet, he took a chance  and  engaged me professionally, and then, more valuable, allowed me entry to his life.  Tonight, my heart is full of memories of dinners, and picnics,of Christmas celebrations.  I see Earl holding my babies with especial tenderness. I recall beaches, boats, fishing tackle and lengthy talks over cool drinks on hot summer nights.I remember weddings and parties and Earl cracking jokes on the dance floor, “Arthur Murray” he would tell me as he seemed to float past me on a cloud of air. I see his confused  concern that my “vegetarian ” dinner is tasty enough as everyone else dives into their prime rib.  I hear him telling me, “Good job Ma-tricia.” I miss him again and already and always.

Earl stands apart in my life with those few, exceptional and principled men  who distinguished themselves in all they did not least because they assiduously dedicated themselves to the welfare of their families: the love of wife and children was the polestar for every act.

I feel tremendously sad that Earl is lost to me. I sorrow for my remaining friends, his wife and children to whom his life was well and truly devoted.

It is not consolation for the loss but it is celebration of the life to observe that Earl’s great gift was living well. His was a life well lived in service to others,stranger and beloved, with humor, intelligence, emotion and grace through each phase of life.

Honoring his gift, Earl has left us a blueprint for living to which I hope we return.

Looking in

dance hall

I do not remember the color of the walls,

or whether  windows were squared or arched as light gained entry.

I cannot recall the height the ceilings reached,

but I remember feeling very, very small.

I see that place, always, on a grey day in winter,

when  naked sentries, aging walnut trees, tower and spill,

the grounds haphazardly attired with twigs and ice and remnants of decay.

The architecture arrests,

reaches towards the skies, billows towards the city,

soiled  white stucco, sandstone, a fortress,

here in this park of urban land:

a haven for the immigrants,

the wanderers, the homesick,

the ones who come and linger as though they  arrive from some other  time and world.

And for the likes of me,

the small and watchful child of such as these.

Though I tread lightly through these halls which echo


with a voice I cannot speak,

a tongue I do not know,

songs I may have heard, but with studied intent,  have not been taught.

I am like a shadow.

Or a figment.

This place is like a dream sometimes.

When I stand aside the squares of parquet that form the dance floor,

 smell the powder and the perfume and the pomade upon the heavy hair,

I hear the swish of the wide, swinging skirts, stiff silk swaying,

keeping time with the scratch of shirts, the slide of shoes,the faint tingle of jewels,

a underbeat to the third-rate band.

I see the faces, hot, red, still lined with worry,

though eyes are closed and lips control the smile;

Bodies, stiff and proper and respectful:


I see a swell of pride –

It courses through the sea of bodies, crammed together, so formal on that floor,

like a cold stiff wind, it invigorates, it braces.

I watch love, congealed and messy,

not a pink froth cotton confection tied with bows.

Not just age and generation,

not merely language and the style of speech,

more than jewels that sparkle,

or  a song list canon

or deportment –

I stand apart, because I am

Not truly one of them at all.



Of Boots and Children…

800px-Classic_baby_shoesI imagine, when I hear their words:  dusty, discarded boots strewn along an endless road that seems to lead into the haze of heat and clouds barracading the forward course.

I remember the sound of children calling across the macadam yard: “Michael,  Destiny, Isis, Caleb, Carmella, Jesus, Maria, Malik , Megan, Eduardo, Elijah, Emma…..”

I recall the frigid afternoon: “The Blizzard of the Century!”  Who knew those little feet could spawn such tumult, the thunder of their winter boots; the  children absconding to safety.

Today, the powerful promise , arranged, swaddled benevolently:  there will not be, not again, not this time! “No Boots on the Ground.”

(When they speak, we see again, thick fleecy  boots warming the feet of our young children)

Is  it the sound of their own voices, calibrated finely: sonorous and solemn in a perfect pairing, which so intoxicates them?

They devour their own edicts, attending  echoes in their own hearts and in halls both hallowed and profane, which swell the wires and the cables and the airwaves, saturating space and sight  not to trumpet the power or the virtue or the veracity or even the excellence of the affirmation but merely  the status and the singularity of the speaker.

Or, do the images they conjure so invigorate some latent propensity that vigor ejects all previous routine?  They are dazzled: shining shining weapons; deserts turned to clouds of fire; weapons wielding death  by expensive super-secret, software; covert victories in dark of night by classified, special forces.  They achieve  glory:  ” Innovators,”  “Leaders in military and strategic planning” “Wizard of the New Wars!”

As they repeat the promise of these bootless battles, their brains scheme victory banners, their aides conceive celebrations.

And listening but not quite understanding, we watch our daughters lace their shoes.

Never Never Never Call That Man a Peacemaker ….

Big Bad Wolves and outsized monsters stayed away from my childhood nightmares.  Instead, the gold streaked waters I played in by day transmuted into a murderous tidal wave and the ginger puppy from the house next store behaved as a sharp toothed executioner.  Still, a few deep breaths, re-orientation and peaceful slumber could be attained.

The fear and dread that lingered I encountered in the light of day.  Just briefly, the hateful screed of Ian Paisley accosted, until my parents, too late aware, ruffled, banished me to some safe spot. There the demon’s words, so sinister and malign, fertilized the seed of fear already in the Philadelphia air for those of color. Hate: dangerous new form of  speech, tactile, palpable in those times.   Mephistopheles had spoken.

To grow, to hope, to change. A narrative available to the most undeserving.

And so,  Paisley died a man saluted for a change of heart.  Cameras captured images: his hands outstretched and grasping the hands of those he had zealously christened “vermin”- their hands now  undistinguishable from his own.

So long as his was the titular “First” seat in government, above the “bloodthirsty monsters,” his colossal ego was soothed, his vanity sated. In the waning years of his turbulent public pursuits, he fashioned a more seemly costume.  Though who can judge his madness, his mission?”

The statesmen, and almost all men they are, call him Peacemaker,” Charismatic,” ” Shrewd,”Loved Elder Statesmana “Big Man with a Big Heart.”

And a big, venomous voice .  So many hearts long ago stopped beating in the conflagration of petrol bombs. More pump blood still through weary veins of bodies mutilated by the Troubles. And watch those impassive, static hearts maimed with the words bellowed long ago to a believing mind,  passed down to child, then to the grandchild, growing in the quartered streets still looking for the halcyon days long promised…

True, better that the thunder of his voice ceased its eternal shaming, vicious speech.  True, that voice  awakened the righteous that those  condemned   at dawn for faith or color or choice of loving partner could be freed from hate  and vitriol come sundown should  the zealots  by mere happenstance decree some new prey more worthy of pursuit. True, a hand stretched out in peace, however late, no longer fells or wounds those in its path.

But Never, Never, Never call that man a peacemaker. 05.41.142014-08-18 16.35.29