John the Revelator by Peter Murphy

Peter Murphy is a first time novelist. His book came to my attention as a result of The Guardian’s Not-the-Booker contest. Based on early tallies, I thought it would make the Not-the-Booker shortlist and it sounded like a good read. It did not and it is.

JohntheRevelatorThe novel is told from the perspective of John Devine, a young Irish boy when the novel opens and young man when it ends. His mother is deeply religious, works as a maid, and raises John alone. Murphy rapidly brings us through John’s childhood up to the age of fifteen. Several early childhood events are particularly important, but John’s own early story is pretty mundane. The first thirty or so pages serve largely to allow Murphy to introduce several key characters, including his mother, Har Farrell (a kindly friend of the family), Mrs. Nagle (a friend of John’s mother), and Harper’s Compendium of Bizarre Nature Facts.

Har gives John a crossbow for his birthday. This is important, of course, because we know that when authors introduce weapons, they will later be used. An early hook is set, pulling the reader forward with some tension. When, where, and how will that crossbow become important?

Harper’s Compendium of Bizarre Nature Facts is important in several ways. Initially, it serves primarily to establish that John is a little different from other boys. He is a loner with a strange fascination for parasites. The importance of this is lost in the early, not-for-the-squeamish descriptions of worms and other parasites. For awhile, it seems Murphy is just trying to turn his readers’ stomachs. The gross descriptions end and the book fades from the action.

Mrs. Nagle is another key player in the story. Though she makes an innocuous entrance as a standard quirky, older woman, her importance builds throughout the novel. Next to John, she was perhaps the most frustrating character for me. But more on my dislikes later.

The book seems only to get going when John meets Jamey Corboy. Jamey’s first appearance is filled with foreboding. Like John, he is something of a loner. However, he is a darker figure, more confident, older and worldly. Jamey has connections with the criminal underside of the small southeastern Ireland town. John’s mother and Mrs. Nagle see little good in Jamey and warn John away, but John ignores his mother’s order. He and Jamey hang together, bringing John into contact with the criminal element, smoking, and alcohol. John is soon in over his head.

Murphy also sets up a side story about an African immigrant who has disappeared likely, a newspaper report explains, as a result of modern day slave trade. This story and John’s threaten to intersect, and finally do, in unexpected ways.

Murphy sets these dominos up in interesting ways using often delightful prose. While describing the home life of John and his mother, Murphy writes:

After the washing up, she sat by the fire and read her Westerns. Gusts sobbed in the chimney and the fire spat and crackled.

‘Book any good?’

‘Ah –‘

She slapped it shut, shook a Major’s from the box and broke the filter off.

‘Too many descriptions. I know what a tree looks like.’

Murphy writes with humor. Part of the joke is that Murphy is fond of description, though never in a tedious manner. Sometimes, his descriptions sparkle:

I watched him walk down the path and into the cold, bright afternoon, his shadow scissoring the hard ground, then went inside and repeated what he’d said.

At other times they come perilously close to cliche, as when the narrator describes an open grave as “gaping like a wound in the raw earth.” And, then, there are the times where Murphy falls in, as he does when John tiptoes downstairs avoiding the all-too-common-in-fiction creaky step. Why always one? Still, the prose is generally fresh, crisp, and efficient. Murphy’s first effort is impressive in this sense.

In controlling the various elements of the story, however, I think Murphy shows his inexperience as a novelist. Murphy delves into issues of friendship, parent-child relationships, growing up, and morality, but not with the control I would expect of a Booker candidate. Too often, Murphy’s characters seem to act as Murphy commands, rather than as they would. Other times, I found the motivations for certain actions too shallowly explored, if explored at all. The characters stayed true to the plot rather than to themselves.

The plot is good. While no reader will mistake this for a thriller, there is violence and the threat of violence. Murphy strings action together with sidelines and danger which keep the reader engaged. To repeat the example I mentioned earlier, the crossbow looms as a threat that must be taken up at some point late in the novel. Murphy has a storytelling gift and writes solid, if not spectacular, prose. I doubt this will be his masterpiece, because he has the potential to do much better. Even so, this is an enviable freshman effort.

For those who enjoy coming of age stories, or Irish stories, or fresh new literary voices, Murphy is worth a go. While this book will never make my favorites list, I will be keeping an eye out for more of Murphy.

[Update: I feel I should note a couple points that I neglected in trying to keep this short. There are two interesting structural aspects. The first involves dream sequences that are set off from the main narrative. It reminded me somewhat of Dos Passos’s Camera Eye sections in the U.S.A. Trilogy in that it broke up the narrative and provided some additional emotional context. These sections are not stream-of-consciousness and, thus, may be easier on some readers than Dos Passos’ Camera Eye sections.

The second structural technique to which I refer involves the use of complete short stories written by James Corboy. The stories are, in some ways, the best part of the novel. They relate events or parts of events in the small town that may or may not be products of James’ imagination. These various elements do work together. However, the sum of the parts here are greater than the whole. I was left feeling that Murphy is very talented, but tried to do too many things without bringing all the elements together into a coherent whole. John the Revelator is good, but only good.]

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