A young Irishman immigrates to the States and finds he can’t escape family and friends—or enemies.
James Dwyer narrates the story, from his growing up in rural Ireland to his job in a Dublin pub to his move to the States, working as a housepainter and as a baker. The drama in his life primarily involves family and his family’s acquaintances. His father is a plainspoken farmer, and James definitively does not want to follow in his dad’s vocational footsteps. His father’s best friend is Michael Lyons, and it’s the Lyons family with whom James’ life gets most intertwined. Michael’s son Kevin is a few years older than James and something of a bully as they’re growing up. While an adolescent, James witnesses a sexual act between Kevin and James’ sister Tess, and later, love relationships get even more complicated when James falls in love with Kevin’s sister Una. The novel opens mysteriously when an old man named Walter knocks on James’ door in Ann Arbor, claims to have seen a woman lying in the street and uses that as an opening to start a conversation with James. We find out that this is no chance encounter but rather that Walter is actually a messenger from Kevin, now living in upstate New York and doing well financially by buying houses, fixing them up and then reselling them at an impressive profit. James reluctantly makes the trip to see Kevin, who wants James to read Michael’s old journals, which contain revelations about both families.
O’Keeffe closely observes human interactions and conveys his narrative largely through glistening dialogue that has the feel of Celtic folk poetry.