An Irish river floods; nine people drown, presumed suicides. Folklore and radio transmissions provide part of the answer in this work of magic realism, the Irish journalist’s second novel (John the Revelator, 2009).
On the first of November 1984, the torrential rains begin, causing the river Rua to overflow its banks in the town of Murn. Nine bodies will be retrieved, six of them young adults. The flood begins the novel and is reprised toward the end, so Murphy has begun with the climax—a daring move. The rest of the novel sketches the protagonist, Enoch O’Reilly, and offers haphazard vignettes of the dead. (In the inevitable comparison, Jeffrey Eugenides’ tightly focused The Virgin Suicides fares better.) Enoch grew up in a small town south of Murn. Mother Kathleen was a devout Catholic; father Frank owned an electrical business and was a published authority on sound waves. This tight-lipped man had built his own machine. The pivotal moment of Enoch’s life came when the 12-year-old snuck into his dad’s workshop and heard a thundering preacher’s voice through the headphones. That same night, his idol, Elvis, the King, exhorted him to emulate the preacher, which he did after a fashion, espousing the Word (but not God) and years later hosting a parodic Revival Hour on local radio. The trouble with this Elvis freak is that he has no interior. He is less complex than Frank, who gathered data on historical flood patterns through his machine and concluded the river was a force to cull the population. Certainly the Rua Nine were mentally troubled or miscreants. One was an arsonist; another, a farmer, shot all his cattle. As a battlefield casualty in Korea, Frank had a vision: “chains of men descending into a river.” And after Enoch’s incursion, he suffered a breakdown, babbling in “riverish.”
It’s the rightness of Murphy’s language that thrills us into temporary submission, but as the novel progresses, its odd structure becomes increasingly problematic.