Framed within the foreshadowing of an Irish griot’s fantastic folk tales, Frank Delaney’s The Last Storyteller mixes myth with the mirth and mire of 20th Century Irish reality. The book is full of stories crisply told, characters sketched and fully drawn in telling dialog, telling about how and why and when and where certain things happened, all in a narrative-descriptive flow that runs like a river, every story a stream that pours into the same thirsty human river.
The foreground of most of the telling takes place in the 1950’s. But seemingly eternal are the Irish themes that haunt the characters: hunger, poverty, and violence both inside and outside the home. And divorce (an emigration from the home), remorse, and the anger and temper and guilt that accompany these human emotions.
But a few jokes get told too, one about a snail who sells encyclopedias (a door to door snailsman), another about a talking frog, for example. How these get mixed in with a story that includes a history of the Irish Republican Army is well worth the read.
The text, 385 pages in hardback, is composed of eight parts, including a story-closing epilogue (it’s not a novel that ends on a cliff), and 150 chapters. The short chapters clip along like a train ride crisscrossing the river of stories.
There’s a love story, of course, which involves its distant cousin, jealousy: “See Ireland as a village and you will completely understand,” our narrator, Ben MacCarthy, tells his children, for the main story is a memoir told by a professional Irish folklorist (a kind of Irish Alan Lomax), written to his children.
Is the narrator reliable? In other words, are the stories true? It’s true he keeps what he calls “a record,” the folklore a subtext, for he creates his own back-story, and then explicates it himself.
“I mean to tell it all. Nothing held back. Think of it as the higher purpose for this family memoir. If that’s what we’re calling it. Some memoir. In which your father seems, with icy calculation, either to have lost his mind or abandoned his principles. Or both. Let me begin with the planning.” But this is the beginning of Chapter 116. In any case, like Ben’s mentor mythmaker, John Jacob O’Neill, Delaney “never for a second lost the original thread.” For all along Ben seems to be apologizing for something. Actions have consequences, and some actions simply can never be reversed, and some actions, like seeds, seem to have their source in other actions.
How is it that Ireland produces so many great storytellers? Well, they’ve a story to tell, that’s for sure. So Delaney joins Joyce, Beckett, Edna O’Brien, and particularly Roddy Doyle, whose own trilogy, The Last Roundup, provides yet another view of the Irish century. Perhaps the single thread that links these writers together is explained by Ben, talking about the Irish storytellers: “…they cared only for the telling.”
Frank Delaney is currently creating a podcast reading of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Delaney appears to be one of those rare, erudite scholars who are able to communicate across cultural and idiosyncratic experience or educational boundaries to share common and important stories. There’s no doubt about his storytelling credibility, and it’s on full display in The Last Storyteller (published this February by Random House).