Modern Irish

Of all the hastily embraced literary genres of the past few decades, “magical realism” is surely one of the most meaningless. With writers as dissimilar in style and intent as Kathy Acker, Nathanael West, Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez lumped together in the same pot, one has to wonder if the entire phenomenon was cooked up by an enterprising publishing flack hoping to move some slow-selling titles.

That said, when a novel is touted as magical realism by its publisher, the sensible reader’s response is often a justified, “What else is new?” In the case of Nina Fitzpatrick’s Daimons, the answer is, surprisingly, “Quite a bit, actually.”

The novel is as deeply engaging as it is frequently annoying, as cloying and esoteric as it is bawdy and frank. These contradictory qualities make the book not magically realistic, but simply, thoroughly, modernly Irish — even if its author isn’t.

Nina Fitzpatrick’s shenanigans begin before the reader even cracks open the book: The name is a pseudonym for two writers, the Polish-born Nina Witoszek, and the late Patrick Sheerhan. There have been two previous “Fitzpatrick” books — Fables of the Irish Intelligentsia, a story collection awarded, and then stripped of, the prestigious Irish Times/Aer Lingus Prize for Fiction in 1991, and a novel, The Loves of Faustyna. Daimons is Witoszek’s and Sheerhan’s final collaboration, an alternately awkward and rhapsodic melding of ancient Celtic myth, contemporary angst, arcane philosophy and taboo sex. Throw in a few nettlesome ghosts, an armada of shipwrecked Spanish sailors, and a narrator who speaks to us both before and after he’s born, and you’ve got a book that’s likely to put off as many people as it attracts.

Readers who enjoy watching writers juggle improbable storylines involving large casts of eccentric characters will probably love Daimons, while those who find authorial pyrotechnics distracting and self-indulgent probably won’t. You’ve been warned.

The novel’s storyline is pleasantly twisted, and appropriately so, considering the story’s setting: the chimerical isle of Uggala, off the west coast of Ireland. (“Uggala pretzels from the sea,” Fitzpatrick writes early in the book, “with hard tangy edges and a soft boggy center.”)

Briefly, here are the relevant Uggalans: In the mid-1980s, unmarried Ethna O’Keefe, pregnant with twins, scandalously returns to the island after several years in Italy. Uggala’s resident poet-Lothario, Danny “Golden Balls” Ruane, is working on a manuscript that combines advanced mathematics with the poetry of the Persian poet Rumi. The island’s sexy-eyed new priest, Father Francis, is plagued by self-doubt and carnal desire, as well as visitations by a reproachful ghost. Biafra O’Dee, sex-starved and choleric, prowls the island, reading astrology charts, yearning for an end to his five-year shagging drought, and frightening women tourists.

Meanwhile, a bunch of skeletons unearthed on a beach seem to offer evidence that several shiploads of Spanish sailors were butchered by the xenophobic islanders centuries before. Rather than recoiling from that legacy, some folks want to build a “Heritage Centre” that will benefit the island (tourism) while cynically acknowledging the occasional small misstep in their collective past (wanton seaside slaughter of helpless, near-drowned strangers).

Happily, Fitzpatrick doesn’t set this up as a parable of an idyllic but constraining past giving way to a modern, soulless future. Instead, the book delves into its characters, and seeks some sort of solace in their own struggles to move ahead without abandoning their shared, tarnished past.

Ethna, Danny, Father Francis, Ethna’s son Finn — whose talkative twin sister, Thresheen, appears throughout as a sort of in utero Shirley MacLaine, blithely offering epigrams from the womb (“A word is not enough to span from Here to There”) — and the rest of the island’s bruised and battered souls pursue or flee their dreams, each according to his fate and guided by his or her personal “daimon.” Daimons are not demons, Fitzpatrick points out, but helpful spirits, “radiant beings that impart a pattern to people, animals, plants, and places.”

The novel careens back and forth between clunky homespun nuggets of wisdom (“He belonged to the tribe of men who are vicious by nature but become kind under duress”), sharp and revelatory observations on the natural world (“the snow disappointed itself into sleet”), and Rabelaisian exuberance (“He had a cheerful, chimney sweeper’s view of anatomy and saw his marital task as keeping Alice’s flue clean with regular blasts from his willy-nilly”) — all the while maintaining an unapologetically episodic, nearly cartoonish momentum. One hears echoes of Tom Robbins’ trademark skeptical-but-still-warmhearted grooviness here, as well as hints of the late, great and criminally under-read comic genius Flann O’Brien.

Finally, more than any of the book’s humans and daimons and ghosts, Uggala itself captures the reader’s imagination. In the tradition of so much Anglo-Irish literature, the damp, green, cool landscape is both comfort and prison, and one of the unarguable strengths of the book is the thoroughness with which Fitzpatrick sketches Uggala as a living, familiar, inescapable presence in the characters’ lives. If there’s such a thing as a beneficent prison, Uggala, with its endearing, infuriating inmates and their attendant daimons, is it.

DAIMONS | By Nina Fitzpatrick | Justin, Charles & Co. | 305 pages $24.95 hardcover

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