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TRACK & FIELD

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I've enjoyed Cormac James' writing since I was first introduced to his short stories by a friend and I've looked forward to reading his longer work it seems years now.
  The disingenuously titled Track & Field is his first published novel and while his stories roll on the modernist project with great energy, this work takes us back to the heyday of modernism's birth, but in the country Joyce chose to flee--Ireland. The Irish Civil War is in its sixth month, the British have pulled back to the northern six counties, and the south is in the hands of conflicting factions--those who want to seize the whole of Ireland for the Republic, and those who accept the Treaty division. It's the aftermath of a moment which has since become part of the Irish national myth, and perhaps in opposition to this myth, Cormac James has evoked one of his own: a Book of the Dead in which three brothers carry the late fourth from Dublin to their homeland. The corpse crosses night country, but must pass barriers and gatekeepers, his brothers rising to each challenge with wit and cunning. Yet James' writing is scrupulously realistic, narrated with a shellshocked, at times affectless, tone which lets simple acts echo with meaning, as at the point when the brothers attempt to slide the coffin from a room upstairs to the groundfloor:
    "There were lines and arcs tracked wherever on the wood we'd had to shove and turn and swivel it. The weight of it was unbelievable. She had already cleared out all of his things and once the books were gone the only trace of him would be these lines and arcs on the wood where we'd had to slide and swivel it and those would be worn away again in a month. We couldn't believe the weight of it."
The context of the Civil War is felt but never explicitly described, as if an event which has carried on for so long there's no memory of prior times. James plays this up in images of unread newsprint come unstuck from the page and attaching itself to things, first the truck's windshield obscuring the driver's sight, then upon food--"until it was turned the meat bore the news all mirrored and blurred like an apprentice printer's, the print all gapped and broken and the ink bleeding out of its assigned arenas." Closing the gap between headlines and life, a mysteriously brutal process.

Track & Field inhabits a masculine world--one of fistfights, reticence, and pissing out of doors--in a state beyond control. Women remain small presences, providing tea and a subject for gossip, almost outside the bounds of the brothers' ken. The ruptures in the novel are scarcely those between English and Irish, but those between city and country man, between the sexes, between brothers. It is by no means a narrow book, and though still only available from Ireland and the UK, this fine novel deserves a readership far beyond its native shores.

Last Updated on Sunday, 21 August 2005 06:11  


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