By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
As he grew older and, it must be said, increasingly bitter, O’Brien distanced himself from his earlier work, even going so far as to publicly dismiss At Swim Two-Birds as “juvenilia.” Eruptions of vitriol and bellicosity became the norm; he even invented a word for it: “scorpiousness.” When he singled out someone for praise, it was usually only a pretense for blasting the masses, such as when he described Yeats as the only Irish writer who wasn’t “literary vermin, an eruption of literary scabies.”
Sadly, this even included his earliest literary hero and one of his most important champions, James Joyce. As Joyce’s reputation grew, particularly in American academic circles, O’Brien’s attitude toward him cooled, iced over and shattered to smithereens. Toward the end, he could be counted on to lash out at Joyce with personal attacks and heap scorn on his admirers. O’Brien’s declining health and heavy drinking did nothing to improve his outlook on the situation. When he burned his last bridge with the Irish Times, he continued to churn out copy for regional newspapers, but he’d lost his touch with his readers. On April 1, 1966, at the age of 54, Brian O’Nolan/Flann O’Brien/Myles na gopaleen unexpectedly died. As is so often the case, his literary career then took off.
O’Brien’s “lost” manuscript was found in a bedroom sideboard shortly after his death. In 1967, the book was published, and it immediately caught the attention of critics. The Third Policeman garnered some nice reviews, but the novel’s originality may have worked against him. There is nothing else like it in O’Brien’s oeuvre — or, for that matter, anyone else’s. The book was too grim and too strange, and American readers were once again distracted by a conflict overseas. O’Brien quietly slid back into obscurity.
Enter the Dalkey Archive: a small, independent press in Chicago committed to publishing innovative fiction and, more importantly, keeping it in print — especially O’Brien’s. Not only is the press named after one of his novels, but its publisher is an Irishman named John O’Brien. In 1998, the press acquired The Third Policeman and for eight years the book performed well, moving about 2,000 copies a year. These aren’t huge numbers, but for a difficult novel positioned well outside the Modernist canon, one could do worse.
Then, the creators of Lost decided to put The Third Policeman on their show. The book isn’t mentioned by name. No one talks about the plot or its characters. None of the scenes are reenacted. Viewers were given a glimpse of the book’s cover, which had been left open, as if to suggest that one of the characters — Desmond — had been reading it before he is discovered in a mysterious subterranean compartment. As with The Third Policeman, either you “get” it or you don’t. How much airtime are we talking about? One second. As cameos go, O’Brien’s is briefer than brief, but the impact was immediate. Thanks to Lost, The Third Policeman has been found. Again.
The Third Policeman| By FLANN O’BRIEN | Introduction by DENIS DONOGHUE | Dalkey Archive | 200 pages | $13 softcover
Jim Ruland is the author of Big Lonesome, a collection of short stories, and the host of “Vermin on the Mount,” an irreverent reading series in the heart of Chinatown.