Reviewing The Metal Mountain, by John Healy (Etruscan Books, 2019)
Thirty years on, new grass grows in John Healey’s arena,
Extended now, that scarred childhood is fiction infused to bridge time.
An exile’s experience expressed through a continued line of rejections,
Barred from scaling the prison wall to seek progress, here then is a new
Metal Mountain that Healy’s aspirant souls try to climb.
The Dochertys’ are the means with which we re-enter the fifties,
Which was a monochrome age, soon encumbered, before the sixties
Societal revolution was designed to begin. Here are some of the struggles
John faced in order to assume place and status, as Boxer, Alcoholic, ‘Deserter’,
Prison Inmate, Tramp, King. Healy has truly lived through much more
Than each or all his oppressors, and so the specifics within this new novel
Seem to mirror as well as become everything. We experience the family strain
At the time of the Queen’s coronation, as with the missing of one payment
For the street party fee, trouble swells. The Dochertys’ are expelled
And immediately lost to London, as streets warp around them, even the Camden
Roads they know well. It is the next separation from home, that Healy of course
Duly echoed, and the sound of his footsteps, soon claimed by the cold can be heard
As the Dochertys seek sanctuary in an England that once held for Ireland
More than just horror, when misinformation and murder stained both hope
And doorway, when betraying the burden of first the social and then the Biblical word.
Exile is all that the Docherys have open to them. Sean the husband,
The children, Michael and Dermot suffused; as if they drowned on dry land
Or had to fight their way to the surface, as their author did through strong waters
Of whisky and beer, all hope strewn. And yet the children grow and learn in the void
To which the sovereign state soon consigns them. Albie Adders, a prosperous neighbour,
Introduces the fledging boys to the ‘birds’. The odyssey starts, the rivers of memory
Moving both Author and reader through the triumphs to come, the deep hurts.
Rita Hayworth, Jean Simmons, these are the women they wait for, while their own
Mother struggles and their Da is half turned to the dark. The journey flows on
Through Etruscan’s immaculately printed pages. The creamlike sheen of the bookface
Providing sly mirror to the story’s words and scar marks. Then, from women
To heroes it seems, as the shadows of war mar the pavements.
Fathers as soldiers and the betrayals of so called peace blur their eyes.
For what do fighters do when their souls, irrevocably changed are unwanted?
As the call to arms will hang limply when there is nothing left hands can prize.
As the father fades, the son sparks his way into trouble. A child’s arrest.
Scrumping apples. These first misapprehensions soon attain poignancy.
Healy suffered for years on his quest for thirst and gain and this remarkable tale
Spares no detail. With his chess master’s precision, fate achieves fluency.
The prose style is rich but does not court attention.
It is a remarkable evocation of a time and place through the hand
That writes and types its old pain in order to make an active form
Of time travel as we return to a city that contains its own cause for ruin
That nobody now living in it can totally understand. This sense of confusion
Is seen through Michael’s navigation; being out of place and an exile
Because of who he is stains the blood. As his mother Mary Jane works
In a St Pancras Street Wash House, the sheets she strains are the tear ducts
Of the fate that now Healy states. As if each sheet were a page onto which
Suffering could be written, a soul stained, clouded mirror framing all the poor hate.
Their isolation. Their loss. Their lack of joy. The long journey.
As if whatever mountain lay waiting would never be theirs to ascend.
And yet the familial bind powers them, even through desperation;
As the test of love stays unspoken, it remains open to them with or without
Strife’s offence. It is only when Mary’s sister Bridget arrives that a possible peak
Achieves focus. A beautiful immigrant, she’s a Hayworth, her own form
Of Ruby, albeit from the emerald isle. She will guide them, it appears
Through the affect she engenders. She has mystery, beauty, glamour,
And is an instant both totem and tonic, making all they have faced
Seem worthwhile. Her stillness and repose startle them. She is a God like gift
Granted to them. An echo from their origins showing them a way through the slur;
Bridget will glide as the messy boys slid and stumbled. Her almost divine gaze,
Untroubled and resolute air shifts the mirk that has been left by bomb blast
And the black market’s slick tendrils. Bridget Kelly sees futures in which
Everyone can be served. Michael and her form a bond as he accrues further
Trouble; accusations around the train station; she quickly becomes his defense.
‘Turn informer and all will be well for the English’ is one of her first revelations.
In a handful of pages what looked like period documentary becomes a tract
For injustice and a thriller that spikes life’s pretence. Bridget’s beauty is fuel.
Her innocence is a challenge. At a ruined time her clear reason and dare to the mist
Seems profound. As Michael roams through the streets, his inherited sense of
Displacement is quickly fired by the spirit his young Aunt controls
Through love’s sound. Michael finds the Metal Mountain of parts discarded and forged
From the ransacked and finds his own home and palace, his own metaphor.
As he scales its torn tiers and heights Bridget makes her way across London,
Locating its heart she will brace it, moving deeper still, to explore.
A political thriller begins as a beautiful seventeen year old girl charts the ugly,
Which bites back to smear her with everything dark in its grip. But she will not concede,
And it is her will that sustains her as it does Sean and Mary, love’s influence ,
Spreading, saving even tired feet from the slip. As the road breaks before you,
Remake the road and the journey. Camden Town becomes mythic in this irish
Odyssey, as if Bridget were Helen of Troy, commanding if not ships,
Then perception, as she represents Irish struggle from the leasing of rooms
To religion dictating those with faith’s modesty. As the English oppress
Her lush red hair becomes blackened. She is delivered into a system
That seeks only it seems to corrupt, while the waste of industry stands
As a possible road to salvation, two young irish people
Fight English wars on train platforms and in smoke smeared rooms;
Love instructs. What we return to is love, if just for the self and no other.
John Healy’s dignity saved him from a seemingly endless line of defeats.
But in this new , crucial book, the grass arena is growing, not this time
For the homeless, but as a place for the hopeful, emerging through ruins
To make each personal world feel complete. The irish experience at this time
And in the decades hence was a horror. Akin to the jews and all others sundered
And split and oppressed. Healy fuses his life to this book but this time through
Fiction; the fears and thoughts, observations that saw him run from the army
And into the bottle, are here seen and broken, littering the street like glass tears.
It was only after he’d drunk that he found the clarity Bridget essays.
Healy’s way with chess is her progress, his change of moves for words
We’ll hold dear. For what seems simple at first becomes its own monument
To achievement. The poetic emblem of rubbish and waste to a boy,
Casts an older girl in the gleam of a makeshift stance for the future
Transforming the still resonant form of a novel into an almost musical
Joy. This is a book all should prize. It mirrors our lives, which are metal,
But which can reflect the organic and the glorious goal we can seize.
John Healy returns. His is a life like no other. And yet in transforming it,
That base metal
The ways and means
Of the free.
David Erdos March 25th 2019