Frank Gannon, Midlife Irish (Warner Books, 2003)
According to the brief biographical notes on the dust jacket, "Frank Gannon is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker and GQ, and has written for Harper's, Atlantic Monthly, New York Times Magazine, National Review, and Vogue." The fact that I have never knowingly opened the cover on any one of those esteemed publications hasn't ever struck me as any great loss. Until now, that is, as on the evidence of Midlife Irish, Mr. Gannon is a terrific writer.
The book is subtitled "Discovering My Family and Myself," which is a pretty strong clue as to what the book's about: Irish-American visits Ireland to trace his roots, and write humorously about how the place affects him. I've put this on my bookshelves next to Pete McCarthy's McCarthy's Bar A Journey of Discovery in Ireland (Irish-Briton visits Ireland to trace his roots, and write humorously about how the place affects him), and Joseph O'Connor's Sweet Liberty Travels in Irish America (Irish writer travels the other way, and writes humorously about how the place affects him....).
Given that there is already a well-established genre for this book, the question for this reviewer was whether the world really needs another one? Happily, it seems that it does, and Gannon's approach to the form is never less than riveting. It's the "and Myself" part of that subtitle which really holds the key to Midlife Irish, which is, above all, a book about Frank Gannon. While the book is written in the context of a trip to Ireland, the reader learns an equal amount about New Jersey, so it's more than a straight travelogue. It's more than a search for family history, too; what Gannon is actually looking for is an understanding of "identity." This journey is represented in both the physical locations and in exploration of landmark relationships. These include the relationship between his parents, between his family and their neighbours, between Irish America and Ireland, and between Ireland and its closest geographical neighbour.
Of these, it's only the last mentioned that finds Gannon (very) occasionally missing the bull's eye. The terms "England," "Great Britain," "the United Kingdom," and "the British Isles" are, admittedly, confusing even for people born and bred there, but lines like, "For a while, Ireland actually colonized parts of England. These isolated colonies were mostly in Wales and Cornwall," tend to stick out among the otherwise exemplary "factual stuff." Having said that, Mr. Gannon had so endeared himself to me by this point, I just blamed them on an editor not owning an atlas! Those errors aside, the author writes with great perception on the "difficult" topics of famine and emigration, and astutely observes their enduring legacies in the Irish psyche both in Ireland and the U.S.A.
One of the truly remarkable joys of reading this book is the realisation of just how much the author has transmitted in the course of what feels like a leisurely read. In this respect, Gannon has encapsulated the essence of travelling in the west of Ireland. The slower one travels, the more time one has to look, listen, and learn. It's an ethos that Gannon embraces wholeheartedly, observing detail, nuance, and contradiction, and musing on everything from the matter of Irish literary genius with the English language, the importance of tourist souvenirs, belief in fairies, the effects of the full Irish breakfast and Guinness diet, and the appropriate wardrobe for one's household "Infant of Prague" statuette. Rather than making the book disjointed and fragmentary, this approach allows the narrative to unfold gradually and organically, reaching its destination in the same way as a good session of traditional music or a conversation in a bar. Like I already said, Mr. Gannon is a terrific writer.
The destination that he initially set out for is, of course, his "roots." More specifically, it's a journey to find the communities where his parents lived, before independently heading for America, meeting, marrying, and raising the "Irish" Frank Gannon in Philadelphia. That he duly succeeds should come as no surprise, but the manner and measure of these successes are quite unexpected. Gannon is taken to the near derelict cottage that his maternal aunts occupied for their entire lives. Surely this is the "ultimate destination." When, on entering this house, he cuts his finger on a shard of broken glass from a framed photograph of himself in a '70s "disco" suit, the world, for both the writer and reader, for a moment, stops.
These coincidences (there are others) form part of what, for Gannon, appears to be the strangest discovery of all. After all, this is a well-established genre, and it's the authors who are supposed to do the seeking and discovering. It certainly wasn't part of this author' initial agenda to entertain the idea that anyone, least of all God, might be looking for him, leaning up against a dry-stone wall, and ready to greet him with "Frank Gannon, is it yourself? How's it going...?"
As I stated at the beginning of this review, my knowledge of the author is confined exclusively to that which he reveals in this book. I know, for instance, that he has a fondness for boxing and the singing of Frank Sinatra, but little of his spiritual, political, or philosophical beliefs. I suspect that many Green Man readers, especially those who live in the U.S.A., will know far more about him than I, and find parts of this book astonishing in that context. Even without that prior knowledge, this book is sharp, affectionate, poignant, funny, and, perhaps most importantly, "open."
It's been an absolute pleasure making the acquaintance of Mr. Gannon in Ireland, and I look forward to encountering him again in the future. Hopefully it'll be through the pages of another fine book like Midlife Irish, as I'm not ready to start travelling into the lands of Harper's, GQ, and Vogue just yet!
Read an excerpt from Midlife Irish here.