During a crucial moment in the broadcast of Lost, ABC’s popular television drama, the camera turned away from the castaways to zoom in on the cover of a book: The Third Policeman, the obscure Irish novel by Flann O’Brien. After one of the show’s writers intimated on an online message board that the book contained clues that would help viewers figure out the show’s numerous plot lines, the book shot up the Amazon rankings. Since its television debut last October, more than 17,000 copies of The Third Policeman have been sold — more than in the previous eight years combined.
For admirers of O’Brien’s work, his newfound notoriety is redolent with irony. For one thing, The Third Policeman wasn’t published in O’Brien’s lifetime. Even though its author was famously hailed by James Joyce as “a real writer with the true comic spirit,” the novel was rejected in both London and New York. O’Brien was so embarrassed by this setback that, when asked how the book was going, he lied to his friends and colleagues and told them that his one and only copy of the manuscript had been .?.?. lost.
Who was Flann O’Brien? Well, not Flann O’Brien, for starters. Born Brian O’Nolan on October 5, 1911, he learned to speak Irish before English and was kept out of school until he was 12. But this does not appear to have set him back. Niall Sheridan, his friend and classmate at University College Dublin (UCD), was of the opinion that O’Brien “burst on the scene fully equipped as a writer.” This was a view shared by many of his classmates, who enjoyed his boisterous wit and the astounding capacity for wordplay that he put on display in the college magazine Comthrom Feinne, where his work often appeared in the Irish spelling of his name: Brian Ua Nualláin.
O’Nolan was also responsible for the publication of Blather, a humorous broadside that was filled with fake news items, extravagant puns and scathing send-ups, most of which he had composed himself and were published under the nom de plume Brother Barnabas. As an expert in an impossible number of subjects, Barnabas regaled the UCD student body with tales of The O’Blather and his idiot son Blazes O’Blather.
When he finished school, O’Nolan began work on what would become his best-known novel, At Swim-Two-Birds. Sheridan recalls the author telling him the plot he intended to apply to the narrative: An author writing a book about a series of characters who were themselves authoring books about the author.
“That’s not a plot,” Sheridan told him. “It’s a conspiracy.”
And so it is. Ostensibly, the narrative comprises three distinct plot lines: one is realistic, the next fantastic and the last absurd. As a result, the book is a dense compendium of competing voices chock-a-block with Irish mythology, pub lore, sales copy, the antics of Dublin oddballs, and copious catalogs and catechisms. Here, the narrator describes one of his characters, a novelist, struggling to get his narrative under control:
He is compelling all his characters to live with him in the Red Swan Hotel so that he can keep an eye on them and see that there is no boozing .?.?. There is a cowboy in Room 13. Mr. MacCool, the hero of old Ireland, is on the floor above. The basement is full of leprechauns.
At Swim-Two-Birds was accepted for publication by Longman’s of London at the enthusiastic recommendation of one its readers, the novelist Graham Greene, who favorably compared the book to Tristram Shandy and Ulysses: “It is a wild, fantastic, magnificently comic notion, but looking back afterwards one realizes that by no other method could the realistic, the legendary, the novelette have been worked in together.”
O’Nolan was compelled to publish the book under a pseudonym so as not to jeopardize his position in the Civil Service. He settled on Flann O’Brien, a name he’d used in a series of letters to the Irish Times involving a dustup with the writers Sean O’Faoláin and Frank O’Connor, because it “contains an unusual name and one that is quite ordinary.” The book was published in 1939 and received favorable reviews on both sides of the Irish Sea. Joyce, who seldom singled out his countrymen’s work for praise, enjoyed At Swim-Two-Birds immensely and tried to get the book reviewed in France. This was no small gesture: Joyce was in poor health and his eyesight was so bad that he had all but given up on reading fiction for pleasure. War, however, was on the march, and the rumor, gossip and faulty intelligence that heralded its approach swallowed up any chance of success the book might have enjoyed. For O’Brien, it was the contemporary equivalent of getting a blurb from J.D. Salinger a week before the Twin Towers fall.
Not all of O’Brien’s luck was bad. The bogus literary controversy he’d ignited in the letters section of the Irish Times caught the attention of its editor, R.M. Smyllie, a throwback who is said to have regularly arrived at the paper’s offices in the afternoon only to dismiss those waiting for him with a fiery oath: “Pissmires and warlocks, stand aside!” After a brief editorial meeting, Smyllie would adjourn to the Palace Bar, the hub of literary Dublin. If you were an ambitious young Irish scribbler, there was no better friend to have. Smyllie seized upon O’Brien’s energy and talent and offered him a job. The Cruiskeen Lawn, which means “a small, overflowing jug,” appeared under the byline of Myles na gCopaleen, O’Brien’s latest sobriquet. The column was an overnight sensation; letters poured in from all over the country, and the question poised on the tip of every Dubliner’s tongue was, Who is Myles na gCopaleen?
The Cruiskeen Lawn would continue on and off for the next 25 years. The columns constitute an enormous body of work, and reading them is like eavesdropping on a conversation in a Dublin pub. Were they a drain on creative resources O’Brien might have more prudently dedicated to novels? Undoubtedly. But while still in his 20s, O’Brien had secured a good-paying job with a pension, landed a popular newspaper column, and was enjoying a growing literary reputation. Hardly the recipe for obscurity. But he also had a secret: He’d just completed his masterwork, a harrowing comedy with the enigmatic title The Third Policeman.
In a letter to the American author William Saroyan, whom he’d met the previous summer in Dublin, O’Brien revealed the book was, on the surface, “.?.?. a very orthodox murder mystery in a rural district .?.?. The whole point of my plan will be the perfectly logical and matter-of-fact treatment of the most brain-staggering imponderables of the policeman.”
In the opening pages of the novel, the narrator, a one-legged man who has lost both his parents, falls in with a scoundrel called John Divney, who concocts a plot to rob Old Man Mathers’ cash box. The narrator agrees to this conspiracy, and the two men lay in wait for the unsuspecting fellow. When Mathers comes along the road, Divney hits him with an iron bicycle pump and urges the narrator to finish him off with a spade. The narrator complies, and when he does so he feels “the fabric of the skull crumple up crisply like an empty eggshell.” What he does not feel is sorrow, sympathy or regret. Then things get weird.
Divney disappears with the money, leaving the narrator to bury the body. Eventually, Divney returns and reveals that he’s stashed the black box under a loose floorboard in Mathers’ house. The narrator stumps off to retrieve it and finds Mathers inside the house. Convinced he’s seeing a ghost, he proceeds to converse with him about all manner of things. What neither he nor the reader realize is that Mathers is not the only spook in house.
The murderer’s quest for the black box takes him to the last place he’d want to find himself: a policeman’s barracks. Here Sergeant Pluck and Policemen MacCruiskeen and Fox — the third policeman — bring law and order to a district inhabited by people whose atoms, after years of riding over rocky roads, are mixed up with their bicycles, leaving them part man, part machine. Time speeds up and stands still. The characters descend into labyrinthine networks of nonsensical rooms that are reminiscent of the dull deviousness of choose-your-own-adventure novel and “off the map” experiences inside of video games. This, we are told, is “Eternity,” and it feels like it.
O’Brien’s narrator is a disciple of the fictional philosopher De Selby, a man with an explanation for everything. De Selby’s theories are furnished in the footnotes, which become increasingly bloated and constitute a critical commentary that runs parallel to the story. In addition to De Selby, we are given glimpses of his colleagues and critics abroad: Basset, Du Grabandier, Hatchjaw, Kraus and Le Clerque, some of whom may be the same people in disguise. Given O’Brien’s penchant for pseudonyms, this should hardly come as a surprise. It is a catalog of names that would not be out of place in an Edward Gorey story. The basement is full of leprechauns, indeed.
Then there are the critics’ critics, exponentially generating blather. Everyone has had the feeling of lostness that comes with pointing two mirrors at one another and watching the worlds inside of worlds multiply into infinity; O’Brien has created its fictive equivalent and populated it with all manner of “queer ghastly things” — much as the creators of Lost have done with their mysterious island. Doppelgängers lurch about, and a stifling aura bears down on everyone and everything until you can almost feel the déjà vu coming. It is a tale of ordinary fantasy; there aren’t any monsters in the moat, but the beast in the jungle is a bloke with a bicycle pump who brains you the moment your back is turned.
The Third Policeman is like a bad dream that refuses to end. The plot seldom excites, yet the metaphysical drama lends the proceedings an aura of dread that never quite goes away. Its tone is intensely impersonal; still, the proceedings crackle with humor. Howard Moss in The New Yorker captures what are, perhaps, The Third Policeman’s rarest qualities: “For no reason one can definitely point to, it is as strangely affecting as it is funny.”
The response from O’Brien’s publisher, Longman’s, which seemed unable or unwilling to forget the struggles with At Swim-Two-Birds, was less approving. O’Brien took the rejection hard. He sent the book to an agent in America — one of William Saroyan’s contacts — this time under the on-the-nose title Hell Goes Round and Round, but no publisher was interested.
O’Brien turned his attention to An Béal Bocht (The Poor Mouth), a short novel he wrote in Irish, and published under the name Myles na Gopaleen. More than twenty years would pass before he’d attempt another novel (The Dalkey Archive). Flann O’Brien went below; Myles na Gopaleen assumed the helm.
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.