Of War and Forgiveness

Redemption Fallsby Joseph O’Connor

Free Press. 464p $25 (hardcover)

Late in Joseph O’Connor’s sprawling, dazzling new novel, Redemption Falls, an elderly Columbia University professor watches a procession of aged Civil War veterans march down New York’s Fifth Avenue seven decades after the War Between the States. For all the rich history gathered down on the streets of Manhattan, one of the impressions O’Connor leaves us with is that this seemingly anonymous witness can be as rich a historical figure as the battle-scarred veterans.

Redemption Falls is set mainly in the years following the U.S. Civil War, in a western territory presided over by an Irish-born Union general with a troubled past. But more important than O’Connor’s characters, plot or setting is his form. Redemption Falls is a dizzying collage of dialogue, posters, lyrics, dialects, court transcripts, footnotes, even photographs. O’Connor is making an ambitious bid here to explore not just American history but the nature of history and narrative itself.

Once we piece together the tragic lives of O’Connor’s characters, we get the distinct sense that any recollection of war, of history in general, can certainly inform, and perhaps illuminate key facts. Anything more authoritative, however, is impossible. After all, as one character puts it, “The past is not over and the future has happened many times.” Does all this theory and experimentation make for compelling fiction?

Absolutely. It takes some time for O’Connor’s narrative to gather steam, and the chorus of his voices can occasionally seem repetitive or caco-phonous. Yes, some readers will be exhausted by the narrative trickery first perfected by O’Connor’s fellow Irishman Laurence Sterne in Tristam Shandy. Nevertheless, there is a gripping yarn here. The final 100 pages of Redemption Falls read like a perfectly executed murder mystery, which in fact it is.

Readers of O’Connor’s last novel, Star of the Sea, should not be surprised by the scope and ambition of his latest work. Star of the Sea was an epic of the Irish famine that incorporated diverse voices and texts, took readers all over the British Isles and spanned the better part of the 19th century. With these two hefty novels, O’Connor has produced a magisterial portrait of 19th-century Irish America, reimagining both the harrowing journey to the New World as well as the war, bigotry and opportunity that greeted the victims of Ireland’s Great Hunger.

At the center of Redemption Falls is Union hero James O’Keeffe (aka the Blade), Erin’s own Robinson Crusoe. O’Keeffe is an Irish revolutionary, exile and ex-con who is appointed acting governor of the titular territory. His once passionate marriage to the exotic Lucia is failing, partly because many of the townsfolk have Confederate leanings and wish to hang O’Keeffe.

This brings us to Cole McLaurenson, leader of a bloodthirsty band of Irish Yankee-haters. McLaurenson’s dialogue occasionally lapses into a hard-boiled parody of Scripture-quoting killers out of a Quentin Tarantino movie. Yet Cole is also so noble he agrees to marry a girl his brother raped. That marriage, along with a mysterious urchin who has wandered into O’Keeffe’s life, set in motion the events that lead to the bloody conclusion of Redemption Falls.

O’Connor has written over a dozen books, and one of them (1997’s mostly lighthearted travelogue, Sweet Liberty) did set out to explore the Irish legacy in America. But little of his previous output suggests novels on the scale of Star of the Sea and Redemption Falls. The latter is particularly interesting because of the precision and complexity with which the Dublin-born O’Connor (who is the singer Sinead’s brother) explores deeply American notions like the frontier, regional identity and the virtues and vices of mass immigration.

The haunted history of the Civil War and the lush descriptions of harsh terrain clearly recall William Faulkner. But Redemption Falls is far from the insular Yoknapatawpha County, because so many of O’Connor’s characters know of vast worlds beyond its borders, be they bourgeois Manhattan, starving Ireland or Tasmania. Like it or not, they lug all of this baggage around with them, in a nation that has just ended slavery and lost 600,000 souls on what one character calls the “slaughterfields.”

O’Connor’s Civil War does seem inordinately Irish, yet the story of the 30,000 or so immigrants (many Presbyterian) who fought for the Confederacy (and the reasons why they did) remains a fascinating, largely unexplored one. Redemption Falls certainly complements great 19th-century urban Irish Catholic novels like Peter Quinn’s Banished Children of Eve and Kevin Baker’s Paradise Alley, and might even be seen as an exploration of how Ireland’s ancient divisions were refracted and manifested in the New World.

Again, Redemption Falls is not without flaws. The role of a cartographer is important, but protracted, while the role of a former slave, whose dialogue is exquisite, nevertheless seems slight. Still, the novel should undoubtedly be seen as one of the most impressive and important novels of the year. At one point, describing a home populated by diverse relatives, a character says: “A genealogist visiting the house would have been perplexed.” This house divided but still standing is America. O’Connor, the novelist as genealogist, makes great fiction out of what has left so many of us merely perplexed.


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