The opening story of John MacKenna’s Once We Sang Like Other Men is a modern reimagining of the gospel parable of Lazarus. The contemporary wit of the author becomes immediately evident in Laz’s phrase: ‘I’m not here to upset the apple tart’ and in the more foreboding comparison of him to Midas where ‘everything you touch turns to cold’. The humour is evident in other stories too, such as in Words, where the dead guy only known as Blue on his tombstone was ‘probably a porn reader in his day.’
Some of the stories’ openings are brilliant, as in Absent Children with the ominous line: ‘I moved away from the river when its invitation became too strong’. Places are mentioned cursorily – Barcelona, Ireland, USA, Russia, Palestine and the Black Sea, but the settings are largely unspecified, deliberately perhaps, in homage to the structure of the Gospel parables on which the stories are loosely based, but also perhaps for the sake of wider interpretation. The Captain was assassinated in a revolution which could be any revolution and his followers, who wind up in far-flung fields, try to come to terms with this.
At their last meal, an old story retold with refreshing clarity by the author, when the Captain tells his followers to eat his flesh and drink his blood, they take his words literally and, after his death, bring his body into the desert and cannibalise him. But no miracle follows and all they feel is guilt.
The poet in McKenna shines through in some beautiful lyrical writing. The father, for example, in the story Sacred Heart watches his daughter running along a beach, ‘her sun-bleached hair flying like a thousand short kite strings’. Or witness how the author allows the choirmaster in The Angel Said to capture something both physical and sacred in his search for Peter as he watches ‘the passing shapes of the figures in the street – quavers and semi-quavers with crochets in tow; figures of darkness and, occasionally, figures blessed by the light of the falling snow’.
Twenty five years after the Captain’s death his followers, many in fractious relationships, work at various occupations from fisherman to theatre producer to farmhand and car salesman without any great fulfilment. Their lives seem empty and futile in the absence of their leader. They are people who crave guidance and appear to be devoid of any teleological or autonomous existential sense.
Even Laz wishes that he might not come back second time round. Life is too much trouble. But the stories draw you on in the skilled hands of the narrator despite their despair. Sometimes the author is sparse in describing what his characters look like and, as short stories, perhaps there could have been a little less reverie and a little more dialogue which the playwright MacKenna would be well capable of delivering, but then that may not have fitted in with the overall plan of a book which, with its disparate parts, must be swallowed whole to be fully enjoyed.
MacKenna has a gift for conjuring deep pathos as in the tragic story of a dog in Buying and Selling, and he captures wonderfully the explosive undercurrents of unarticulated emotion in possibly the best story Absent Children, where the cuckolded husband ‘behaved as if a word would shatter whatever it was that held his world together’.
Like Thomas Hardy, MacKenna sees nature as red in tooth and claw, juxtaposing the human condition. In Buying and Selling the action of a cat consuming a dunnock is perceived as almost something preordained: ‘It seemed to be filled with joy when it flew into the cat’s… jaws,’ Thaddeus says. ‘It was singing.’
Sunday Indo Living 26/02/2017