All Will Be Well
The Gods of Art were lavish in their gifts to John McGahern. First of all they gave him the talent for English prose: to find its equal you have to go back to D.H. Lawrence's big three novels -- Sons and Lovers, The Rainbow, or Women in Love or the first volume of short stories. For his equal in that effortless identification with his characters, for that clarity of revelation of motive and of temperament, of how peopl expose themselves in the small things with the most terrible pathos, you have to look at the non-cranky Tolstoy of Anna Karenina. McGahern looked at human nature with such integrity, such purity of intent, that you feel that there was only one way any of his books could have been written -- his way, even if it meant that the manuscripts just sat piled up in an attic somewhere and never made it out into the world. This perceptiveness and his language, comprise the rirst gift.
The second was a great, passionate love and loss; his mother, who died of breast cancer when he was nine years old. He never forgot what it was to love with his whole being, he never forgot what it was to live in his mother's love. In the autobiography, she tries to get him to understand and accept that she is going to die. She explains that God wants her; "God's got everybody else," he says. "I've got nobody." He held on to his memory of her, it is with him through his whole life; the places where they walked together he remembers in these repeated incantatory passages, keeping the memory alive. There is no laughing off, no moving on, the love is carried all the way. He never doubted for a moment the greatness of this experience of love. It's the highest moral value.
Well, surely that would have been enough. But no. The Gods of Art loved him, as they love all who truly love and abide by the truth of love. They gave him his father -- a character so spectacularly weird that his mere presence would have made the One Good Book of any lesser writer. Selfish, conniving, sentimental, a bully, hypersensitive, mean, unintentionally funny, master of the emotional poison-pen letter, self-dramatizing, awkward, terrifying, controlling and incompetent, maniipulative, violent, prone to self-pity, needy, needy, pitiable and impressive. As I read All Will Be Well, I was seeing the father with the same amazed wariness that his children must have maintainte in order to survive life with him. There's nothing strange about his craziness; it is only a concentrated dose of the various crazinesses that are peculiar to family life. I've seen bits of him in my own relatives. But he has all if these, in such high concentration it that I think he's actually bending time and space towards him. He gave whole new depth, color, and richness of meaning to the phrase "It's All About Me." He manages to be the center of attention in his son's life story, the mighty ego exerting its massive gravitational pull though he's been dead so many years.