By Mike Hudson
THE LONG FALLING, by Keith Ridgway. Houghton Mifflin Company. 305 pp. $22.
One has to look long and hard to find even a vaguely sympathetic character in Keith Ridgway’s grim first novel, the difficult question being whether the search was worth the trouble.
First there’s an abusive husband, a farmer in Monaghan, who blames his wife for the death of their eldest son, beats up and banishes his younger son when the kid admits to being a homosexual, and then runs down and kills a girl while driving drunk. Nope, definitely no sympathy there.
Next, we have his wife, Grace, who may or may not have been responsible for the elder son’s death and who finally gets fed up enough to run over the abusive husband, who happens to be on his knees praying at the exact spot where he’d run over the girl. Sure, maybe he deserved it – in fact the police are inclined to look the other way – but it’s still rather hard to muster up much warmth for somebody who kills a guy while he’s praying.
Grace then flees to Dublin, where she’s introduced to the world of gay nightlife by her son Martin, who’s also quite a piece of work. For the most part he’s convinced that his mother’s crying jags and jitters are due to the loss of her spouse, this despite the fact that Martin witnessed said spouse beating her on numerous occasions during his own formative years. His lack of empathy seems largely due to his constant fretting and obsessing over whether his live-in lover, who’s out of town when Grace arrives, is being faithful to him.
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When he finally does find out the truth about what happened to the father he detested and had not spoken to in years, he throws his poor mother out onto the street, calls the cops and informs on her.
Did somebody say “Jerry Springer?”
While no one would argue that dark and disturbing characters don’t have a place in serious literature, the best of them have some inner nobility that serves to ultimately redeem them. Here, the only character for whom redemption seems possible, Grace, ends up seeming more like a mental patient than a scarred saint, her grip on reality gone.
For some reason, the author chose to tell his story against the backdrop of the famous real life “X” case, in which the Irish government attempted to prevent a 14-year-old rape victim from traveling, with her parents’ permission, to England for an abortion. Other than the fact that “X” suffered violence at the hands of a man and so did Grace in the novel, there would appear to be little similarity between the two cases. While “X” wanted to kill her unborn child, Grace actually does kill her husband. If “X” and Grace are linked, are the fetus and the husband also?
The two disparate storylines are held together – thinly – by the character of a gay reporter friend of Grace’s son who is covering both cases simultaneously. At first, he is also presented as a pretty despicable human being, who sees both tragedies as nothing more than a way to further his career. But lo and behold, he gets religion in the end, destroying Grace’s taped confession and leaving it to her own rat of a son to tout her out.
The biggest problem with this less than excellent novel, however, is that its author, Keith Ridgway, is an excellent writer. Using the bleak, highly descriptive prose style often employed by John McGahern, he almost pulls it off. It’s hard to criticize somebody for trying to do too much, but one gets the feeling that, had Ridgway been a little less ambitious in trying to deal with so many varied themes in a single book, he could have done better.