am 25. April 2000
I put off reading A Goat's Song because of what it's about. The basic story is, to say the least, unpromising, at least to me. Alcoholic playwright Jack Ferris is desperate to get back together with his actress girlfriend. He lives in a small village in the west of Ireland (uh-oh, goes my Instant Irishness Alert). He waits for a message from her. At the beginning of the book, he's got it; she's coming home. Yay for him! He waits for her to turn up. And waits. And waits.
The novel flashes back to show the whole of Jack and his girlfriend's life together, and then flashes back further to Catherine's childhood in Northern Ireland, where her father was a policeman. Gradually, in a way that I can only describe as Tolstoyan, Healy manages to cover decades of Irish history as experienced from both the centre and the edge. Catherine's father, a Protestant RUC man, takes part in suppressing a civil rights demonstration and is then shocked to see himself on telly beating a man to the ground with his truncheon. The book wheels in its remorseless course (one of the best things about it is that while it has a strong air of being at least semi-autobiographical, there isn't a shred of special pleading or sentimentality about it) until we get back to the present.
Healy is brilliant at putting you in the same room as his characters and having you think their thoughts. The accounts of Jack and Catherine's wild drinking bouts are, ahem, painfully familiar. His prose is strong and lucid without ever indulging in irritating bits of semi-poetic landscape painting in the Proulx manner. The end of the book is almost too painful to read, and yet you're left not with the sense of having been dropped in fictional muck but with a real catharsis, and a huge admiration for the art with which Healy has constructed the novel. (It's fair to compare Healy's structural ingenuity with that of Nabokov.)
Healy had written some poetry and some pretty good fiction before, but God knows where he pulled this one from. The title comes from the meaning of the Greek origin of the word "tragedy", and it's deserved. In my opinion, the most beautifully written Irish novel - without ever being pointlessly "Beautiful" - since peak-period Beckett. And I don't mean that lightly.
His memoir, A Bend for Home, is also extraordinary, and a far better-written and intelligent book than the ludicrously over-hyped Angela's Ashes.