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Fiction reviews


Victor Kelleher - Micky Darlin' and To The Dark Tower

1 December 1992

Micky Darlin'
Victor Kelleher
University of Queensland Press

To The Dark Tower
Victor Kelleher
Random House

Published in The Australian

I suppose an Irish family would not be worth writing about unless it spawned lots of the three f's (two of which are fighting and falling down drunk). The Donoghues of this book also spawned Micky, the story's narrator, who grows from childhood to manhood in the course of the tale. There is little "plot development" in this rambling, discontinuous story - but it is not missed. Micky Darlin' is an unapologetic series of character portraits.

Micky himself is more of an observer: we get to know him largely through the family members who nurture, mould and ultimately define him.

His mother has done a bunk from the area (which, though unidentified, seems to be1940s and 1950s London), and his father has done a bunk from life: he is as comprehensive a drunk as ever graced the pages of a book about the Irish.

So Micky is raised by his grandfather (Gramps) - who regularly switches from towering patriarch to half-inebriated oaf - and his grandmother (Nan), one of those indestructible old women who has seen and endured everything.

Others come and go, many of them trailing clouds of turpitude. The crumpled knickers and self-respect of the "fast" Aunt Joyce are often to be found in the vicinity of trouserless American servicemen, among others. Uncle Joey bawls in terror during the Blitz, like the sissy that he is. Uncle Sean becomes the first Irishman in modern literature to back away from a fight.

This is probably the only ground broken by this competent, even book. However by its end one does have a nicely rounded picture of this Irish emigre family; and the characters - briskly dealt with from page to page - accumulate a certain amount of flesh.

And so To The Dark Tower. Leaving aside the propriety of pinching titles from other titles - this one is from Browning's wondrous Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came - this ripping Jungian yarn describes the quest for manhood of young Tom, poor and fatherless, who climbs mountains by day, and dreams of them by night. The dream-ascents involve an ancient man, an "elfin-like child" (as the book's dust-jacket puts it), a towering, unclimbable peak, a darkly intuitive female guide, and other symbols and archetypes too numinous to mention.

Tom's daily battles with authority figures, and his mountaineering challenges, spark his psychological growth; his vivid serial dreams provide us with symbolic progress reports. Fittingly, the two stories mirror each other at key points. Together they describe the horrors visited on a close-knit coastal community when industry arrives. The dream-Tom has been "chosen" to carry a divine child across a perilous mountain range, avoiding the hunters (who uncannily resemble authority figures from his waking life), so the child may lead the people away from the satanic mills, and back to their ancient learning, and love of nature.

No-one will be gladder than me when Western society kicks its addiction to the heroin of economic growth. But, unhappily, Kelleher's sound idea is rather plain in the execution. Like Micky in the first book, Tom - the central character - lacks volition almost entirely. Unspeakable horrors, and great blessings, fall on his head unearned, unsought and, for the most part, uncomprehended.

There is a thin line between archetype and stereotype: the story's other characters express themselves in ways which are, by turns, florid, thunderous and aquiver with meaning; which means that this line is crossed rather too often.

Further, the plot's mysteries remain unexplained for long enough to render them annoyances. When they are  finally explained, they tip the story into the silliness it is always on the brink of.

I should point out that it soon became clear that To The Dark Tower - with its simple prose, its stretched credibility and its heroic adolescent cast - was written for young teenagers: though Random House, somewhat irresponsibly, is marketing it to "diverse ages". Kelleher has many fans among the young teens (including one in my house). Let's hope they keep this one away from their parents.

Instead of being promoted as a writer of good yarns - he is little more than that - Kelleher is trumpeted as "relevant, important and challenging". (No, not early Barry Humphries, but the Sydney Morning Herald book pages.) His descriptions, we are told by the Sunday Telegraph, via his effusive publicist, are "the like of which are now more often to be found in epic poetry than in a novel". Leaving aside that almost no-one is writing epic poetry at present, Kelleher's rather everyday prose is quite devoid of epic poetry's metaphorical and descriptive properties.

In the course of announcing such "highly acclaimed", "overpowering" and "breathtaking" talent (to use adjectives from Kelleher's PR, and earlier reviews), I hope our tendency to national self-delusion does not prevent us from recognising a real genius when he or she materialises.

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