A Review of Liam’s Going by Michael Joyce

So often novels have style but little substance and often there is a struggle to express substance but the project is doomed without style. Here is a book with both in abundance and a sense of poetry that illumines both the story and the reader. Michael Joyce is a major figure in our literature.

Reviewed by Bob Williams

Liam’s Going
by Michael Joyce,
McPherson & Company, 2002,
ISBN 0929701-66-6, 207 pages, $22.00

A mother, an accomplished if not very well-known poet, is driving her son to college. The atmosphere that surrounds them is taut with the relationship between them as well as the existence in their lives of Liam’s lawyer father, Noah, and the mother’s memories of an old and intense love affair with an orchard owner named Paul. The son, Liam, has left behind him a young woman named Jennie. Joyce is a craftsman of language and has no word too many and none of them abstruse. He is also clever in a good sense of the word. There is a prefatory poem by Cathleen Hogan Williams. It is a good poem and the reader wonders about looking her up. She turns out to be the mother of the novel. This trap for the reader immediately and cleverly calls into question the relation between the factually and the poetically real.

The book consists of six named chapters. The second chapter looks at Noah, the father. He is at home, having generously left to his wife the son’s trip to college. He is at loose ends and reflects upon his past. His past, like Cathleen’s, involves another about which his wife knows little essential. On this solitary weekend he, seeing her photograph on a book jacket in Cathleen’s study, thinks of the young woman from his youth, and of the anguish he recently experienced when he realized that he was a person without inner substance. This pain was also tied to a conversation with Liam about the absoluteness of death and his inability to offer to Liam any consolation. On this weekend he leaves his home to care for an elderly neighbor. I found it especially interesting that the Frenchwoman was a student come to study the works of a very great novelist, an activity from which she hopes to achieve fame. It becomes clear that this very great novelist has the same last name as the author of this book although Michael Joyce teasingly withholds the name.

In many novels the divisions into chapters have small impact. It is often possible to read through chapter divisions without noticing their existence. Joyce is a more than usually careful craftsman and the chapters exist as substantial units however joined they may be each to each. On the road again with Cathleen and Liam Joyce ponders a novel of another age. It is possibly a creation of his mind but convincing and fascinating. The task of driving in difficult circumstances impairs Liam’s tenuous grasp on maturity and the two experience discomfort in each other’s company. Liam continues to be concerned about the problem of life after death. They pause to look about them and Cathleen tells him what she remembers about the scene before them. When he asks that favorite question of the immature: what good is it to know these things? she answers unswervingly. “It doesn’t do good,” she said. “It is good.” Liam’s journey is one of anticipation edged with dread as he leaves home for the world of school. Cathleen’s journey is one of memory as she both hangs on to her son as he once was and recalls the intense love affair that she had had with Paul.

At the neighbor’s, Antoinette Ryan, a lively woman of ninety, Noah dines with her and listens to her story. As with Liam and Cathleen, his memories erupt in unexpected but appropriate ways and the reader needs to pay attention to determine if his memories are of the French woman or of Cathleen. Antoinette reminisces. She and her brother left Ireland soon enough to escape the restrictions that the newly born state of Ireland placed on emigration and through the efforts of Brian became wealthy. But the story fades into Noah’s’ memories of the young French woman and his realization that, although he and Cathleen knew as much about each other as anyone, the secrets each of them kept outweighed their knowledge.

Once more the mother and son travel to their destination and Liam admits his fear of the unknown experience before him. In its way this becomes part of his concern that he shared with Noah – the tragedy of death and the extinction of the individual. To underline this, we hear more of Noah’s retreat with a bottle of whiskey to the garage where he sat behind the wheel of his car. From his solitude and paralysis Cathleen had rescued him. There is a noticeable change in the narrative strategy. Events belonging to the narrative scene are no more important than those that do not and relationships among events form new and startling patterns. The book is in motion just as the mother and son travel to their destination and it is a curious book in which the motion is fueled by the stories that the characters tell each other and themselves and the motion is as important as any of the stories. This expansion persists to the end of the book, appropriately set at dawn and filled with that kind of light.

So often novels have style but little substance and often there is a struggle to express substance but the project is doomed without style. Here is a book with both in abundance and a sense of poetry that illumines both the story and the reader. Michael Joyce is a major figure in our literature.

For more information about Liam’s Going visit: Liam’s Going

Click here to read our interview with Michael Joyce

About the Reviewer: About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His writings, two books and a number of short articles on Joyce, can be accessed at:
http://fracman.home.mchsi.com/

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