Mathews' colorful debut novel examines the legacy of Irish political violence for a family in both the old country and New York during one busy week in 1939.
Francis Dempsey, who has been jailed for selling banned books and luxury items, gets a furlough from Dublin’s Mountjoy Jail for his father’s funeral. There, he is joined by his unhappy seminarian brother, Michael, and several old Irish Republican Army buddies of his father’s, who rig an escape for the brothers that involves an IRA bomb factory. There, an accidental explosion leaves Michael shellshocked and the brothers in possession of a Republican war chest. Francis uses the money to present himself as a Scottish lord and books passage for himself and his brother to New York on the RMS Britannic. His fake title leads Francis to a wealthy Manhattan girlfriend and a dangerous role in a New York mob boss’s plans. Michael's dazed state leads to a fascinating relationship with the restless ghost of the recently deceased William Butler Yeats. Meanwhile—and there’s a lot of meanwhile in this busy doorstop—a third Dempsey brother, Martin, who has been in New York for 10 years, is trying to get a jazz band together for his sister-in-law’s wedding reception and impress recording legend John Hammond. But the bride-to-be, who performs synchronized swimming as an AquaBelle at the World’s Fair, is having second thoughts about her nuptials after a night at the Plaza Hotel with Francis. Among the many splashes of New York atmosphere, the strongest are snapshots of the city’s prewar musical frenzy. Weaving through it all is an old IRA enforcer with a tragic tie to the Dempseys who found escape on an upstate New York farm until the mob boss forces him to find the war chest and Francis. Mathews’ debut shows impressive control of this narrative cornucopia, although his reliance on characters’ thoughts to propel the plot can be tiresome.
It’s not Doctorow’s Ragtime, but there’s a similar feel in this impressive, wide-ranging debut.