By Peter Murphy
Faber & Faber, $35
This review by Nicky Pellegrino first appeared in the Herald On Sunday, 5 April.
With a title taken from a gospel song, sung by Blind Willie Nelson, John the Revelator is the story of John Devine, born in a storm and raised by his devout Catholic and quite mysterious single mother Lily.
John grows into a small boy who’s fascinated by parasites and from there into the outsider figure so beloved of novelists until he’s befriended by the slightly risky Jamey Corboy. The pair of them racket around town getting up to no good and then Jamey winds up in a correctional facility where he occupies himself writing short stories that purport to be based on the secret lives of the town’s inhabitants. These stories are mixed in with the narrative along with John’s apocalyptic dreams about crows.
There’s a sense the story is building to a crisis and, when John’s mother starts to sicken, it becomes clear that her loss is going to be his watershed between adolescence and adulthood.
This is an enigmatic book, peopled by characters who may not be what they seem. Murphy captures that suffocating small town atmosphere and creates some memorable characters – particularly the Dickensian Mrs Nagle who moves in and takes over when Lily is sick. But Murphy is a music journalist and his writing has that same self-consciously trendy, perpetually adolescent music press feel to it. That said, the man can write, he has a particular flair for dialogue and a light touch with Irish idioms.
Do did I think it extraordinary? Well no. I reckon this might be the sort of book you have to relate to in order to feel the way Toibin and Doyle evidently did.