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Literary underground crawl

Dublin in 1972
by Thomas McGonigle
Reviewed by Kevin T. McEneaney

Thomas McGonigle’s St. Patrick’s Day has won the annual Notre Dame Review Book Prize. McGonigle is the author of two previous fascinating novels: Going to Patchogue (1992) and The Corpse Dream of N. Petkov (1997). The former chronicles an American ex-pat returning home, while the latter examines the surreal landscape of politics in pre-World War I Bulgaria.

Like the late Edward Albee, Thomas McGonigle is not “a friend of mankind” (words of critic John Lahr), and like Albee he may be more European in literary sensibility. Like Albee, McGonigle worked for many years in a messenger service. Yet unlike Albee whose “The Zoo Story” was an early success, McGonigle has struggled in the shadows of the literary world, even though he has been a prolific book reviewer of primarily European novelists like Thomas Bernhard, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Milorad Pavic, Andre Bitov, Peter Nadas, Imre Kertesz, Peter Esterhazy, Cees Nooteboom, and older German novelists not read by American writers—Ernst Junger, Gottfried Benn, and Peter Handke.

St. Patrick’s Day paints one day in the life of an aspiring writer drinking his way through pubs: Grogan’s, Neary’s, McDaid’s, the Russell Hotel, those bohemian hotspots of 1972 Dublin. This quest is patterned on the 1904 Aristotelean chronology of James Joyce’s Ulysses. What has changed in the interval since Joyce abandoned Dublin is that a sophisticated underground literary world has developed amid poverty, cynicism and drink. McGonigle deftly conjures the atmosphere of desperation, mordant wit, and eloquent hypocrisy of this subculture. Humorous passages recount anecdotes from the life of poets like Patrick Kavanagh, James Liddy, and Leland Bardwell, among others.   

Amid stream-of-consciousness dislocations, this pilgrimage in Ireland is interlarded with personal recollections and memories of other locales: Paris, Sofia, Copenhagen, New York City. Collage (newspaper scraps, letters, posters, and postcards) enlivens dialog. McGonigle also has the knack of winding up syntax to land in an unexpected corner with a sudden burst of light. 

The comic and abrupt deus ex machina conclusion of the novel, in terms of technique, recalls the reversal of fortune motif in The Octopus by Frank Norris wherein the poet protagonist gives up poetry and sails to India to make his fortune through colonial exploitation. While Norris appends a lengthy and terribly amusing tongue-in-cheek sermon postscript, McGonigle’s deadpan brevity remains shockingly concise. Having miraculously inherited a fortune, the protagonist will never develop as a writer. This succinct multi-layered satire with Horatio-Alger ending pokes fun at the American Dream as well as the American-Irish Postcard Dream. The novel reminds me of Samuel Beckett’s early satiric novel Murphy as well as Donleavy’s The Ginger Man, yet McGonigle’s voice and style remain uniquely his own.

If anyone attempts to read this narrative with fundamentalist understanding, the novel’s wit, radiating irony and oblique humor will remain beyond their reach. Joyce’s Ulysses concluded in ambiguity about the future of the protagonist asthete (does not the reader feel it was a mistake not to take Bloom’s offer of a tryst with Molly? Yet is not Molly a kind of Circe who might have destroyed the young writer?); McGonigle’s whimsical, documentary-like cynicism mocks the tsunami of vulgar fundamentalism that now consumes the average American novel out to strike-it-rich at the casino of the American Dream while it offers a trenchant critique of American identity lost in a Disneyland of unthinking dreams.

This book is an important literary landmark. I read an early draft of the book back in 1980 and managed to find a major editor to glance at the manuscript, but he sneered that the novel had no commercial future. Artists are often ahead of their era. It’s time America caught up to Thomas McGonigle. He has a trunk of other unpublished novels.     

St. Patrick’s Day is that rare novel that must be read with attention to stylistic shifts and an alert sense of humor; it’s a bit like the dry layers of a really good Spanish rioja.  

McGonigle will do a reading at 192 Books at 192 Tenth Avenue on 28 September at 7pm. For more info see