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Processing the bitter to a durable, beautiful form

by Joseph S. O'leary

KICKING THE BLACK MAMBA: Life, Alcohol and Death, by Robert Anthony Welch. Darton, Longman and Todd, 2012, 240 pp., £12.99 (paperback)

The late Bob Welch’s many friends will read this heart-rending elegy for his son, Egan, with total absorption. Some in Japan may recall how during his second visit here, at a banquet of the International Association for the Study of Irish Literatures, he cried out, “I love this country!” They will find in this book a full expression of his unforgettable personality: the intense humanity, fascinating conversation, keen observation and judgment, abundant wit, irony and humor.

“This is not, emphatically not, a religious book,” the author insists, yet it opens up many startling religious perspectives: “I was shown the actuality of Christ in what Egan went through; he was the means whereby the reality of love was revealed to me, in the fullest possible clarity of realisation.” The Christian images are compounded with ancient Irish conceptions of “the otherworld.” There are even preternatural events, as when the newborn child audibly says “hallo” to his father, prompting the mother to exclaim, “He’s been here before.”

The book is a tribute to the healing and illuminating virtues of literature, not only in the way it draws on Dante, Wordsworth, Yeats, Beckett, David Jones in its search for meaning in tragic events, but above all in its style, which processes bitter experience to distill from it a durable and beautiful form. The lightness of touch that is one of book’s stylistic triumphs prompted this reader to exclaim, “How Japanese!”

In fact, the maxim of a feudal lord, Naoshige, is quoted: “Matters of great concern should be treated lightly.”

The image of cruel cuts that etch an indelible pattern runs through the book, beginning with the “four cuts or tears” that disfigure the quality notebook in which the son wrote a message to his parents before attempting suicide. A gracious moment in the son’s life “has cut itself into my memory, as acid will cut into an engraver’s plate in the process of intaglio, where the image to be printed is burned into the metal and the fissures filled with ink.”

A poet in Irish and English, disciple of the poets Sean Lucy, John Montague, and Sean O Tuama, Bob Welch sees the places where his son’s tragedy unfolded with an eye instructed by a vast knowledge of Irish literature. His threnody is seconded by the voice of an older Ireland condemning the vulgarity and violence of the present.

Alcoholism is a painfully boring phenomenon, yet at no point does this narrative lose its grip and sink into miserablism. Despite filth, vomit, rage, self-hate, self-harm, reckless aggression, unending agony and nightmare, the reader is persuaded by deft strokes that the son is a singularly beautiful person, and is drawn into the father’s passionate love for him, laced with pity and fear, and with restless questioning.

Variety of tone is sustained by poetic digressions and humorous anecdotes, whereby Bob Welch “keeps the ball rolling” (a phrase he quoted in connection with Joyce’s style). The story moves back and forth in time, dramatizing its own composition in different houses and hotels where retrospective insights occur. This discreet artistry adds to its power.

Moments of tenderness that seem thoroughly satisfying are regularly qualified by some bitter afterthought. Assured by his father that it doesn’t matter what he does with his life as long as he’s happy, “Egan began to cry helplessly. I took his hand and started to cry as well. And then I told him that I loved him.”

But a remark by a psychiatrist after Egan’s death brings a less happy interpretation of those tears: “It may not have mattered to us what Egan did in his life, but it mattered to him.”

Tension is jacked up halfway through the book with the appearance of a sinister set of thugs, “sharks who specialise in the feeding opportunities provided by those open to humiliation.” An interlude in Sardinia takes us into an eerie world of prophetic divination.

A plunge back to Ballingeary, Ireland, a decayed Irish-speaking enclave to which Egan was transplanted after his early years in Leeds, northern England, provides an answer to the riddle posed in his notebook message: “If I die, it is not alcohol that killed me, it’s something else?” Egan becomes the embodiment of historical Irish traumas and the victim of the breakdown of Irish traditions. But that is less an answer than an elegiac apotheosis.

Joseph S. O’Leary, an Irish theologian, is a professor of English literature at Sophia University in Tokyo.