“Good fiction creates empathy. A novel takes you somewhere and asks you to look through the eyes of another person, to live another life.” – Barbara Kingsolver
Barbara Kingsolver is one of my tried-and-true, go-to authors. From the first time I picked up a copy of The Bean Trees in the 1950s-bowling-alley-turned-Barnes-and-Noble in downtown Bellevue, I knew I would like it. Originally, it was the cover art and fluorescent orange spine that made me pick up the book, but after I bought it and actually read it, I knew I was under the spell of this author. Although the eccentricity of a blind babysitter named Edna Poppy and a shop called Jesus is Lord Used Tires stood out to this 17-year-old, what I really enjoyed was Kingsolver’s ability to show me other sides to issues and situations that I didn’t know much about, such as underground railroads for immigrants and rural Appalachian towns. It was all very eye opening, yet in a quirky-character-driven sort of way. But as much as I love to read Barbara Kingsolver, I’d also argue that her novels sometimes lean toward the pedantic and heavy-handed side; she may write sympathetic characters for both sides of an issue, but at times, they turn into caricatures of themselves.
Reading from the perspective of “the other” is one of the gifts of fiction, yet how can a reader tease out the nuances in complicated conflicts? Do we need to read exaggerated versions of stereotypes in order to “get” them? Conflict is a constant throughout history: We already know that struggles have two or more sides to them, and anyone over the age of 25 or so should (hopefully) know that a 100% fool-proof version of events is about as elusive as being given a Cherokee baby and naming her Turtle, as happens in The Bean Trees.
But this particular post isn’t about Barbara Kingsolver. Instead, I’m writing about The Temporary Gentleman by Irish author Sebastian Barry. The way that he creates empathy for his characters differs from Kingsolver’s method—Barry has an interesting track record using an approach that, whether he intends to or not, allows readers to empathize with different players in his plots without sermonizing or writing garishly unrealistic characters.
First, the author gives his characters their own concrete story, told via first-person narration. They may waver in their convictions and sense of purpose, but they own their perspective.
The Temporary Gentleman is the story of Jack McNulty, an Irish soldier serving with Great Britain during World War II. It is the story of a man trying to decipher what it means to be Irish nearly forty years after Ireland gained independence from Britain and what it means to fight in a war in which his own country has claimed neutrality. And it is the story of a man and his family—wife Mai and daughters Maggie and Ursula—damaged by alcohol abuse. The Temporary Gentleman showcases Jack’s woulda, shoulda, coulda reflection of his life. Barry uses time shifting to tell Jack’s story, as readers are brought from Sligo, in Northwest Ireland, to his time in Accra, in present-day Ghana, with the British Merchant Navy and back and forth both in locales and years.
After a brief recollection of his family’s history, Jack ruminates, “Though this was a history without documents, it constituted in my father’s mind a faithful and important record of real things. And it was from this that inevitably I drew a sense of myself in the world, and I never questioned any of it.” It’s as if Barry is saying, Here’s Jack’s take on the story. He knows it’s his alone—and shaped by his own history—but receive it and realize that you’re getting one singular, but very particular, vantage point.
Our stories and our perspectives are innately selfish; no one is immune from seeing the larger world in relation to our own, microscopic one. In the case of Jack, he is quick to see numerous facets of his life in Accra in relation to his life in Ireland, although on the surface, these two places could not be more different. While filtering his foreign surroundings, Jack compares what he pays his houseboy Tom Quaye to what his brother Eneas received in the Royal Irish Constabulary. As his houseboy whisks him to nearby Osu for a night out, Jack watches the “sullen, sunken presence of the Atlantic shore…and suddenly [his] mind was filled with memories of Sligo nights.” Further, I find it hard to believe that mere coincidence or carelessness would allow the author to give the name Tom to both one of Jack’s brothers as well as his houseboy in Accra. At one point, he thinks his houseboy “the very spit of [his] brother Tom, years ago in his dancehall at Strandhill.”
I suppose it’s a bit like seeing a Honda here in Dublin, where that brand of car isn’t too popular. The first time I spied an Accord, arguably one of the most common cars in America, a quick drop of homesickness spit at me. Or there is the time that an Australian friend posted a picture of a motorway exit sign on Facebook; Aussie signage apparently looks an awful lot like the emerald-green American freeway signage, so again, a little lump appeared in my throat at the sight of something so seemingly familiar. Yet, the irony, of course, is that neither of these concrete objects is American; it’s just how an American would claim them as “theirs.” Those glimpses of homesickness or association with concrete reminders of home may belong to me, but the objects themselves can play a part in anyone’s story.
This appropriation of items, scenes, and people colors Jack’s tendency to see things the way he wants to see them. As he remembers watching Louis Armstrong, in Accra to perform, he notes “The white wives laughed with delight at the sheer musicality of it all, a few inches from the black wives, laughing with the same delight.” This performance occurs “as the pot of freedom was boiling,” and the reader ponders this picture of a conflict-free harmony that Jack paints: Are they “delighted” for the same reasons? And when Jack relays how, after a wild and alcohol-infused night with Tom Quaye, he wakes up to see his room doused in his own urine and feces and how Tom dutifully and matter-of-factly surveys the state of the room (and then presumably cleans it up), the reader must wonder: What is Tom Quaye really thinking?
And how do others see Jack McNulty? Here is the beauty of learning about Jack McNulty and the family that shapes him: The Temporary Gentleman is not the first book in which he’s appeared.
You see, Jack McNulty isn’t a new character for Barry. And for readers of his other works, they will already have met Mai, Jack’s brother Tom, as well as a despondent and somewhat pitiful minor character in Gentleman: Roseanne, Tom McNulty’s wife and the main character in Barry’s Man Booker-shortlisted The Secret Scripture. Although Gentleman gives readers a glimpse into Jack’s life from his own vantage point, here’s what Roseanne has to say about Jack in the 2008 novel in which she centers: “The epic story of Jack – a little epic, an ordinary epic, a local epic, but epic for all that – was unknown to me. All I saw, or began to see, was two spick-and-span brothers coming in for their cups of tea, any Chinese leaf for Tom, and Earl Grey by preference for Jack.” Or this: “Because [Jack] had been in Africa he also had strange phrases like ‘Act the white man.’ And ‘hamma-hamma’. Because he had seen a thousand drunken nights, another phrase was ‘Keep the party clean.’” Roseanne indicates that Jack cares about social class (and potentially looks down at her because of her Presbyterian background) and “…had those smalltown filmstar looks, you’d be in the cinema watching Broadway Melody or some such, and when the lights would go up at the end, yes, you’d be back in bloody Sligo – except for Jack. Jack still had some halo of Hollywood about him.” In short, he was a big-man-around-town who wooed others with his charm, and while I suppose that representation comes across somewhat in Gentleman, it is Roseanne’s account in Scripture that helps to round out the picture. (Barry also wrote The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, which I have not read, but which describes how the third McNulty brother was forced to flee Ireland and introduces readers to the McNulty family. Eneas is mentioned briefly in the two other books, in a “hushed” manner.)
Any Journalism 101 class will give students an exercise to demonstrate how different vantage points—either ideological or physical—will result in different stories depending on the source. Let’s think of this as Sebastian Barry delivering The Wall Street Journal, Al Jazeera, and the Irish Independent to his readers in one bundle.
One of Barry’s best lines goes to Roseanne in The Secret Scripture: “For history as far as I can see is not the arrangement of what happens, in sequence and in truth, but a fabulous arrangement of surmises and guesses held up as a banner against the assault of the withering truth…Friend or enemy, no one has the monopoly on truth. Not even myself, and that is also a vexing and worrying thought.”
My first thought after finishing The Temporary Gentleman? I’d next like to read Mr. Barry’s take on the houseboy Tom Quaye and his experiences with British colonialism. I know the stereotypes, so I don’t need moralizing or fringe personifications. I’d like just the facts—Tom Quaye’s facts.