Review- Vachss, “Flood”

Andrew Vachss, “Flood” (1985) (narrated by Christopher Lane) – This crime novel, published in the year of my birth, catalogs many of the going fears of the time, most of which bled into my early childhood. The first of what seems to be a long series of novels starring Burke, an ex-con private eye who specializes in shaking down the “freaks” of his native New York City and protecting children, “Flood” capitalizes on the panic over organized child sexual abuse then raging unchecked. Vachss himself, according to wikipedia and his introduction to the novel, at any rate, considers himself first and foremost a protector of children. He apparently has a law practice that only takes on juvenile clients, and once ran a juvenile prison (honestly, seems to contradict the whole “child protector” thing right there, but what do I know?). Eye-patched and given to eccentric statements, like how his “personal religion is revenge,” he cuts a vaguely Moshe Dayan-ish figure.

I listened to this book in part out of general interest in crime fiction, and in part out of an interest in fictional depictions of this era of moral panic. My birthday lecture this year is in part on Dennis Lehane, another crime writer who draws from the well of corrupted childhood innocence. Cards on the table: “childhood innocence” talk from adults, especially adult men, creeps me out. I am indeed aware there are those who prey on children- growing up when and where I did, this is unavoidable. I’m also aware that these are crimes of power imbalance, and posturing as a protector of the weak is a good way to ensure that the power imbalance stays where it is, regardless of good intentions on the part of the “protector”. I also know that in the vast majority of instances, the power imbalances that generate child abuse come from socially-enshrined institutions, the kind you’re not supposed to question, like that of the Catholic Church or, most pertinent of all, the heteronormative patriarchical family. The local fascists like to posture about how opposed they are to pedophilia, as though such a stance makes them brave. They still support Trump and never touch the Church. I’ll believe a social worker or a survivor when they talk about this shit, not a rando vigilante wannabe.

Vachss (and Lehane, for anyone keeping score) acknowledge this power dynamic, partially. Child abuse exists in the sanctified spaces in the world of Vachss because, well, it exists everywhere, kind of rendering the point moot. Still and all, the “freak” Burke hunts in this book finds his victims via, where else, day-care centers, in this instance day-care centers run by liberal churches who buy a freak’s fake traumatized Vietnam vet schtick. He’s hired by the titular Flood, a hot young lady who wants to do a karate duel with the bad guy (who calls himself “The Cobra”). It’s that kind of a book.

Much of the book is a tour through the slime-pits of Burke’s New York. Vachss enumerates in loving detail Burke’s scams, security arrangements, and network of allies. We don’t know what Burke went to jail for but we do know he sees himself as being above both the square society of “citizens” and the “freaks” of the city- he sees himself as a meta-predator, preying on those who prey on others. Though to be honest, when he’s drumming up business for shyster lawyers or running his other penny-ante scams, he seems more like a scavenger than anything else, and Vachss’s descriptions of his security systems get tiresome too. For those playing the game of trying to dope out an ideology here, Vachss is complicated, though I wouldn’t say “complex” in the sense of “nuanced.” He’s disgusted by the society of freaks, but right-wingers are freaks just as much as anyone else in his book. Scamming the mercenary pipeline to Rhodesia winds up being a key part of how Burke finds his man, and Burke is pals with Puerto Rican militants and a trans woman who’s relatively sensitively portrayed, given the era and the context.. Moreover, there’s little appeal to lost innocence on a societal level- Burke and Vachss don’t look back to the fifties or whenever. Ultimately, in a fallen world, there is no society, only men and women and their — in this instance, chosen, like Burke’s posse — families, to borrow a phrase from a contemporary figure. Crime fiction doesn’t generally set out to solve the structural woes of the world, but the way they choose to portray these structures can tell you something.

How to rate this book? It was certainly an interesting glimpse into a time and place. Vachss’s work might form a building block going forward in thinking about the era, and I do plan on reading and writing more concertedly about the late twentieth century. I also found it markedly unpleasant to listen to. Vachss himself would presumably put this down to my incapacity to deal with the reality of the streets, but if I may speak for myself in this hypothetical conversation, I don’t think that’s it. For one thing, I’m not sure how real any of this is, between the karate duels and the friend of Burke’s who invented a laser as a kid and the open-air child slave and pornography markets. For another, it just ticked a lot of boxes of unpleasantness for me and I think for many readers orthogonal to the premise of child abuse existing, starting with the creepy protector-of-the-youth bullshit you need to accept as the price of entry, and including the choice of the voice actor to do ludicrous dehumanizing Asian and black dialect voices (his Hispanic voices were relatively restrained- thank god for small favors I suppose). In the last analysis I rate these books based on whether I liked them, like goodreads says (this all started with goodreads, for better or for worse), and in the end I would not say I “liked” this weird, scuzzy book. **

Review- Vachss, “Flood”

Review- Walsh, “Astral Weeks”

Ryan Walsh, “Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968” (2018) – Van Morrison’s second solo album, “Astral Weeks,” seems to come out of nowhere. Those accustomed to the overplay of “Brown Eyed Girl” on oldies radio and assuming that’s what Morrison is all about — even if they like that version — are in for a surprise if they turn on “Astral Weeks.” Better essayists than me, most notably rock critic legend Lester Bangs, have already expanded at length on the album’s musical qualities, with a lot of words like “transcendent” thrown around. It really is worth your while to give it a listen.

One of the things that provokes discussion about the album is the contrast between the art and the artist. It’s not that anyone’s surprised that Van Morrison could create something like that on a talent level- from his early work with Them, everyone knew Morrison had talent. The contrast is between the emotional range of the album and that presented by Van Morrison the person, and much of his subsequent work. In short, “Astral Weeks” is a deeply felt, empathetic piece of work, and Van Morrison was and is… a piece of work. He himself has spent the last fifty years insisting “Astral Weeks” isn’t representative of his work or personal in any way. He’s something of a sour old man and always was, even when he was making brilliant music in his early twenties. This wasn’t rock and roll grandiosity, great talent and great failings (and great stories); he was just a low-grade, petty prick to everyone around him. You don’t need to believe great souls make great art but… the going theory seems to be that Morrison got in touch with something around the time he made “Astral Weeks.” Some of the magic lasted into subsequent albums, but it was mostly gone with a few years, and he never touched anything like it again, and it burnt something out of him.

Musician and music journalist Ryan Walsh puts forward the novel idea that there could be a Boston connection to that “something” Morrison touched in this book. It’s notionally about the album, but really it’s an attempt to summon a gestalt. Boston isn’t commonly thought of as one of the epicenters of “the sixties” as a phenomenon, but Walsh makes the argument here that maybe it should?

There’s a few different strains of narrative he follows and tries to string together. Van Morrison was indeed in Boston in 1968, Cambridge more precisely, trying to get out of a bad record contract, playing gigs, and writing the material that would go into “Astral Weeks.” He was attracted in part by the Cambridge folk revival scene, which was in collapse by then and an erstwhile member of which, Mel Lyman, was setting up a folk-music-labor-and-sex cult in Roxbury, the Fort Hill Community (or Lyman Family). This all sort of came together around the creation of the Family-backed Boston Tea Party, a concert venue which became a favorite for the Velvet Underground among others. There was a lot of psychedelic stuff going on, from Timothy Leary’s early experiments at Harvard to trippy public tv on WGBH to the countercultural press — like the Fort Hill Community’s magazine “Avatar” — pushing the envelope and getting in free speech fights. There was also the more earth-bound concerns of the time, and Walsh retells the story of how the Boston mayor’s office got James Brown to play a special concert to help keep the kids occupied and not rioting after the MLK assassination.

A reader expecting solely a deep dive into Van Morrison’s world and process might be disappointed by how much of the book isn’t really about him, but Walsh does get the goods in terms of tracking down his collaborators. He also paints a vivid picture of Boston’s music scene at the time, when record company people tried and crashingly failed to promote a “Boston Sound” as a geographical counterpoint to a San Francisco seen as fading out. He gets seemingly every old Boston rock hand talking. One person Walsh doesn’t talk to is Morrison himself. I have it on reasonably good information from a friend of the author that Walsh didn’t even bother to try, knowing that “Van the Man” has driven numerous other rock journalists, like his biographer Clinton Heylin, to distraction and hostility with his evasions and crabbiness.

How successfully does Walsh summon his Boston 1968 gestalt? Does it get across the emotional overtones he wants it to? He’s reasonably successful, I’d say. You don’t get quite the sense of cosmic connection out of the coincidences and crossed paths Walsh documents that you do out of “Astral Weeks,” but it’s harder to do that kind of thing with prose nonfiction. I’m not sure I buy the notion of “Astral Weeks” as a “Boston album.” Yes, Morrison developed the songs in Boston. But he recorded them in New York, with the vital backup of New York jazz session musicians. More importantly, the songs themselves reflect Morrison’s youth in Belfast. “Astral Weeks” has been called the last culturally significant portrait of Belfast before the Troubles. But this, thankfully, is not a thesis heavy book. Mostly, you just sort of take in the gestalt, and Walsh’s efforts to reconstruct it. ****’

Review- Walsh, “Astral Weeks”

Review- Winship, “Hot Protestants”

Michael Winship, “Hot Protestants: A History of Puritanism in England and America” (2019) (narrated by Paul Boehmer) – I listened to this book less out of interest in the Puritans themselves and more out of interest in where the historiography on them has gone lately. Michael Winship is a professor who has been widely published in Puritan history and this appears to be his attempt at a book for a wider audience, so it’s probably not the best way to get at the cutting edge of the questions involved, if there still is one. But at the same time, mid-twentieth century and earlier writers on Puritans, who I’ve read more of, directed themselves or at least tried to at a mass audience while maintaining high academic standards, getting reviews in newspapers and the like and not just academic journals. This led to such amusing remarks as a newspaper reviewer warning readers that Perry Miller’s “The New England Mind” “requires cooperation from the reader.” Indeed!

The early American Studies scholars wrote for a broad educated audience because they had what amounted to a civilizing mission in mind: show the American people the greatness of their own culture (as defined by the canonizing project the American Studies scholars themselves undertook) and simultaneously steer them away from political radicalism. Perry Miller’s Puritans were meant to be not ancestors to Americans, as earlier scholars held them — if nothing else, in an increasingly diverse America, that wouldn’t fly — but as progenitors of their political and social project. Scholars like Miller were too sophisticated to make this claim in any easy, straightforward way, and given to an ironic, sometimes tragic outlook on life and the achievability of great dreams, so a one-to-one Puritans-to-contemporary-Americans thing wasn’t what they went for, at least outside of what might get taught to primary school children. Even if you disagree with their take on the Puritans or others they construed as constitutive of the American cultural canon (I often do) or with their larger pedagogical project (which I’m definitely not on board with- not that any of my teachers were, either, by the time I came of age), works like “The New England Mind” endure as scholarship for a reason.

Again, “Hot Protestants” from the title on down is meant for popular consumption, in this age where scholars seem convinced that no one wants their most advanced work, unfortunately. So I don’t know what Winship’s larger project might be. In the world of “Hot Protestants,” it appears to be “humanizing” the Puritans, as well as deprovincializing them, re-rendering them into the trans-Atlantic actors they were. The narrative often moves forward through representative stories of given Puritan experiences to illustrate changes in the relationship between Puritanism and the established Church of England, in New England’s ecclesiastical governance policies, and so on. There’s less emphasis on theology here than I am used to seeing in work on Puritans, and more on what today would be called the “wedge issues” which so violently rent society in Britain in the seventeenth century: regulations on amusements, specific forms of ritual, church governance, and so on. Perhaps Winship felt that this would hold a modern reader’s attention more than the points of theology which so moved the Puritans- he is probably right, if so.

Winship is less thesis-heavy than Miller and his ilk. This is probably good as far as accurately conveying information about the Puritans goes; Winship takes a swipe at Miller specifically for blowing John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” speech out of proportion and decontextualizing it until it became a cliche of twentieth-century American rhetoric. But it raises some questions as to what the stakes are for “Hot Protestants.” The stakes for Miller and the American Studies cohort were high- arguably as high as that of the Cold War they imagined themselves helping to fight. “Hot Protestants” is no defense of Puritanism, even if contextualizing them in any meaningful way helps show them as something other than the simple tyrannical martinets they’re often portrayed as being. Implicitly, the book might be able to sustain a reading as a warning of the dangers of ideological purity, which Puritans (both of Presbyterian and Congregationalist stripe), Anglicans, and everyone in between pursued violently and at great cost to New England and especially English society.

Still… not to harp on the comparison, but I did read Miller recently, and he made the Puritans seem both alien and kin to the society in which I live, in a number of illustrative ways. There was a power and subtlety in “The New England Mind” which “Hot Protestants” simply doesn’t have. It’s admirable to try to make the strange familiar, as Winship tries to do. I think it’s another thing entirely, an uncanny and wonderful thing, to suspend the reader between the strange and the familiar, to make the reader dig a little deeper into the structure of what they find familiar and see that it’s pretty strange, too. I guess to put it more simply, Winship familiarizes the strange but does not make familiar strange, in this book anyway. Doing both is more interesting, to me, anyway. ***’

Review- Winship, “Hot Protestants”

Review- McCurry, “Masters of Small Worlds”

Stephanie McCurry, “Masters of Small Worlds: Yeoman Households, Gender Relations, and the Political Culture of the Antebellum South Carolina Low Country” (1995) – Historian Stephanie McCurry gets down to social history cases in the antebellum Low Country of South Carolina, arguably the harshest and most alien American social environment this side of Massachusetts at the height of the Puritan theocracy. Over half of the population were enslaved Africans, reaching seventy percent of the population in some places. This skewed the already warped Southern social fabric. Here, instead of a non-slaveholding white majority like you saw in many southern states, even the “small” “yeoman” farmers owned upwards of ten slaves. McCurry doesn’t discuss landless white agricultural workers in this work, which suggests they were only present in very small numbers, unlike in the rest of the country.

No, the Low Country was something of a propertarian dream (as, indeed, the antebellum south is generally for a clade of right-wing libertarians). The small farmers, caught between the system of massive cotton and rice plantations run by ultra-wealthy elite planters and the abyss, more or less, found a place in the system based on what they had: ownership and mastery over a small amount of land, a small number of slaves, most importantly over their families and especially wives and daughters. Ownership, mastery, and their inevitable counterpart, submission, became the master metaphors of the Low Country, governing everything from how the people related to the Almighty in the evangelical churches to how electoral politics functioned.

McCurry tries to address the paradox between the universal white manhood suffrage South Carolina embraced and the aristocratic control exercised by Low Country planters. There could be no republican governance without a subject working class- the “mudsill” of civilization, as they called it. By being routinely recognized as not part of this mudsill, as (lesser) masters in their own right, the yeomen were essentially flattered into taking part in an otherwise deeply undemocratic system where the planters held the balance of power through gerrymandering, property requirements on offices, and so on. This is a good enough answer, and an explication of the “psychic wage” theory of white supremacy. I do wonder, though- elites everywhere would give a lot for the kind of control the antebellum planter elite had in South Carolina. Why did it work out so diabolically well for them there and not elsewhere? Is it just happenstance, or a founder effect from the Barbadian planters that settled the country in the late seventeenth century? Or are the differences exaggerated? Either way, this is good spadework done on a difficult and counterintuitive subject. ****

Review- McCurry, “Masters of Small Worlds”

Review- Cherryh, “Merchanter’s Luck”

C.J. Cherryh, “Merchanter’s Luck” (1982) – I very much enjoyed the first of C.J. Cherryh’s “Alliance-Union” series, “Downbelow Station,” a fast-paced and agreeably overstuffed scifi novel set on a trading station on a remote planet. “Merchanter’s Luck,” the next book in the series, has some of its interstellar-workaday charm, not unlike that found in the universe of the “Alien” movies. But I’ll be damned if it doesn’t drown the reader in technobabble and the particularities of gray-market interstellar trade. Sandor, the protagonist, runs a sort of tramp-steamer in space, the “Lucy,” which does various low-grade contract-shenanigan deals, staying one step ahead of the law. As far as I can tell, the plot is he falls in love with Allison, from the “Dublin Again,” a respectable family generation ship (in scenes with the family, one is tempted to cry out, “MICKS… IN… SPAAAAAACE”) that does big-time interstellar trade. He follows her spaceship on a risky “jump” to another star system, which causes attention to fall on his shady business. For some reason — love? Impressed with his dedication? — Allison convinces her bosses/grandparents to more-or-less buy “Lucy” and let her and some cousins help run the ship with Sandor and do some interstellar trade on their account. They then get entangled in some business between space-pirates and space-pirate-hunters. There’s something about a “Union” and an “Alliance,” two unhelpfully generic names for rival space empires. The characters learn to respect each other. And there’s a lot, a LOT, about the logistics of space travel. But unlike in the writings of, say, Neal Stephenson, there’s no geek-out attempt to explain these logistics. The characters just think and talk about them and expect you, the reader, to follow along with the jargon. It gets baffling and boring. I still like the overall gestalt of Cherryh’s space stories so I’m rating this higher than I might, but I hope the sequels give the readers a little more to work with. ***

Review- Cherryh, “Merchanter’s Luck”

Review- Waugh, “Vile Bodies”

Evelyn Waugh, “Vile Bodies” (1930) – The Jazz Age, a time period reading Americans instinctively think of as “Great Gatsby” territory, gets the Waugh treatment in this, his second novel. Waugh came out the gate an extraordinarily assured and controlled writer — “Decline and Fall,” his first book, is well worth reading — and while he anchors “Vile Bodies” in pathos (helped by a bit of future prognosticating), it lacks the occasional dip into the bathetic Fitzgerald was known to take, or that his fans have read into him if we’re feeling charitable.

A couple, Adam Symes and Nina Blount, stand as centerpiece of this brief but panoramic view of Jazz Age London society. They get engaged and disengaged as Adam’s fortunes go on a madcap up-and-down run over a period of weeks: getting his manuscript (Adam is a “bright young thing” writer), winning bets, losing checks, gaining and losing newspaper employment, etc. Waugh accompanies this central theme with further illustrations of a society out of kilter, unmoored from traditional verities (he wasn’t lachrymose about the loss- yet). The constant in and out of parties that wander from place to place, a well done (if slightly heavy-handed) public motor race gone out of control, and the occasional brief speech from a savvy Jesuit (this is around the time Waugh converted to Catholicism) underscore the theme of post- (or inter-, anyway) war moral chaos. “Vile Bodies” nails a mixture of humor (Waugh was a cutting humorist, which did not mix with his, err, unfortunate racial opinions well, but it doesn’t come up much here) and angst where the two relieve and enhance each other.

In the end, it’s all pointless, as Waugh prognosticates another, even more destructive war than World War One on the horizon (I don’t think you needed to be a Nostradamus to do that, but it works for Waugh’s purposes). One wonders how long and fervently Waugh hoped for the war he eventually participated in, World War Two, and wrote about extensively… though his war novels never reached the acclaim of his earlier work or of “Brideshead Revisited.” You could call this a search-for-meaning novel, but really, Adam doesn’t want meaning as much as he wants a break on the financial-cum-nuptial front- he’s a reflection of his times, including his time’s self-reflexiveness, not a rebel against it. Those times were well made for Waugh’s critical literary eye. ****’

Review- Waugh, “Vile Bodies”

Review- Mahajan, “The Association of Small Bombs”

Karan Mahajan, “The Association of Small Bombs” (2016) (narrated by Neil Shah) – To paraphrase Adam Clayton Powell: “I am against the dismal novel of bourgeois angst. But until the dismal novel of bourgeois angst is done away with, I believe the Indian bourgeoisie deserves the same chance to be minutely depicted as the Anglo-American bourgeoisie.” Divorce, the classic subject matter of such novels, now has competition from terrorism, the departure point for “The Association of Small Bombs.” We get to see how a “small” bombing in a Delhi market scarred the lives of a survivor named Mansoor, some of his friends, and the parents of two child victims of the bomb.

I guess I shouldn’t have started on such a down note, this book isn’t great but it isn’t terrible. Predictably, but also aptly, enough the bomb becomes a metaphor for the forces fracturing the marriage of the Khuranas (the couple whose kids were killed), stunting Mansoor’s life, etc. Paul Auster’s problem was a lack of good verbs; Mahajan’s tic is odd adjectives and descriptive language, a less damning flaw but still notable. The worst one that comes to mind is describing a computer keyboard as being made up of “plateaus and inclines” when I think you’ll find your keyboard is actually pretty flat and regular, etc. There’s some interesting interactions between young people over Islam and porn (the two forces battling for the soul of the internet, one says) and a pretty good scene where the dad Khurana tries to show his bratty sons (before they get killed) how the other half in Delhi lives, but the poor aren’t being squalid enough to get his point across. There’s a lot of less interesting stuff about marriage and real estate.

Probably the most interesting part for me wasn’t the Khuranas’ bad marriage and apartment deals but Mansoor and his friend Ayub. They meet in activist circles, trying to resist the Indian police’s unfair treatment of Muslims (including people involved in the bombing that injured Mansoor years earlier). Here, Mahajan takes his place in the long litany of bourgeois writers who depict politics of any stripe, from Gandhian pacifist protest to Salafist terror, as motivated by an individual’s ennui, boredom, and status-seeking, and not by anything like ideas or a genuine desire to see the world different. This facilitates the slide of Ayub from one of those poles to the other- a girl in his activist group breaks up with him, so he joins the Kashmir separatist terrorists. There’s a little more to it than that — Mahajan is nothing if not interested in observing the psychology of his characters — but that’s basically Ayub’s story, which sucks Mansoor in and ends the book. All told, an Indian-American (Mahajan was born and currently lives in the US but was raised in Delhi, I understand) entry into the mold of bourgeois literature, for better and for worse. ***

Review- Mahajan, “The Association of Small Bombs”

Review- Shalamov, “Kolyma Stories”

Varlam Shalamov, “Kolyma Stories” (1972) (translated from the Russian by Donald Rayfield) – Conservative moralists squat on top of the literary memorialization of the Nazi death camps and the Soviet gulag, even though the pair I have in mind, Elie Wiesel and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn respectively, are both dead. Both are well worth reading but both also seek to isolate their particular instances of evil from history and politics, insisting on their metaphysical uniqueness and priority. This impulse has, ironically, loaned these historical memories to political projects of many blunt, history-distorting, and violent kinds, starting with the totalitarianism school and ranging from Zionism to post-Communist revanchism in Eastern Europe to whatever nonsense Jordan Peterson was selling before he took his current protracted disco-nap.

Wiesel and Solzhenitsyn got the Nobels and, more importantly, sit the perch where one is taught to generations of western high schoolers and undergrads as the definers of totalitarianism. Other voices were always out there and some, like Primo Levi, even had pretty good traction, though no Nobels, for those playing the home game. Gulag memoirist Varlam Shalamov has been published now in English both by Penguin and in those snazzy NYRB Press editions, but to the best of my knowledge hasn’t penetrated the western public that much.

That’s a shame, as he’s a great storyteller. He was a Trotskyite, sent to the Kolyma mining colonies in the far northeast of Russia during the great purges of the 1930s, and stayed out there for seventeen years, until things started cooling off after Stalin’s death. Shalamov credits his longevity to having made it, after a few deathly years in the mines, into a paramedic program, and the stories he began writing after his release have a sort of medical acuity to them, an eye for symptoms and diseases, pain and humor. He gives a depiction of life stripped down its most brutal basics: the hunt for food, warmth, and security in an environment lacking all three. At bottom, he reiterates in several places, the camps strip the humanity from their inmates (and staff, in a different way), leaving only anger out of all the sentiments. His fellow Trotskyites came in already dehumanized from the tortures they experienced before being sent away; others, like the prisoners of war who had the bad luck of escaping from German captivity only to be sent to the Gulag, fought back more. But mostly, these are stories of work, food, theft, negotiation over the stuff of life. 

One obvious difference here with the Solzhenitsyn school of memorializing the Gulag is that Shalamov doesn’t moralize, or moralizes differently. For one thing, he went in a communist and as best I can tell, came out one, just of a shade disapproved of by Moscow. Shalamov harps on two things, and you can tell they were the preoccupations of someone who was still thinking like a camp prisoner: first, don’t romanticize criminals, as Russian (and other) intellectuals are wont to do. The gangsters in the camp made everything worse, an additional transaction tax of shit added to the already shitty situation they were in. Second, nothing about the experience of forced labor was ennobling, as the Soviets insisted on during (and after?) the high point of the Gulag system, and going through it didn’t grant any metaphysical insight. You can see why this appeals to western audiences looking for Cold War or post-Cold War morals less than other writers of the totalitarianism experience, but it also reads true. *****

Review- Shalamov, “Kolyma Stories”

Review- McCann, “War and an Irish Town”

Eamonn McCann, “War and an Irish Town” (1974) – Being a Trotskyite from the North of Ireland… talk about sectarianism inception! Eamonn McCann has fought for justice in Derry, the north’s second largest city, for decades, and has plenty of stories and even more analysis to show for it. It’s lightly surreal- I’ve read more than one account of organizing victories and woes in my day. I don’t think it’s too much to say there’s something of a Trotskyite “house style” of these things that transcends the many divisions within Trotskyism: the minute attention paid to organizational structural detail, the occasional doctrinal sermon aside, the inevitable partial success that would have been a fuller one had others listened to the voice of the people/the organizers doing the writing. What’s surreal is reading about the positional warfare of organizing committees and agitprop in Derry while an actual war, the Troubles, was starting at the same time.

There’s something ridiculous about these small sectarian groups grousing each other and puffing up their importance as though their position vis a vis the massive explosion of sectarian — real sects, with centuries of blood behind them, not the sunderings of Internationals of yesteryear — violence. But, as McCann shows, it’s not like the IRA or for that matter the Protestant paramilitaries were immune from the same sort of doctrinal, strategic, and personal wrangling. At the end of the day, it was small groups of people trying to harness an explosion of popular energy using the best tools they had.

McCann is a good storyteller and is surprisingly generous for a guy with an axe to grind. Unlike other socialists I’ve seen speaking on the Irish question, he manages to make his points against the IRA — ramifiers of sectarianism, insufficient attention paid to class — without missing the obvious part of their appeal. That appeal was simple and practical: the IRA, and particularly the Provisional wing, were the ones ready(ish) and willing to fight when the Protestant mobs came howling to destroy the Catholic communities that had dared to peacefully campaign for their rights (inspired by the black freedom struggle in the US). The various Irish socialist groups from the Labor party on down weren’t and never really were, some small guerrilla cells aside. McCann never denies this, even as he does something of a victory lap in his 2018 introduction about how the Good Friday Accords wrote sectarianism into the constitution of the North and that we’re no closer to a united, socialist (which even the IRA claimed to want, though they played a complicated game with red-baiting) Ireland than we ever were.

The memoirs part, of the rise of the civil rights struggle, the turn on the part of the Orange establishment and the British military to armed violence and the Catholic people’s response, and the atrocity of Bloody Sunday, is probably the best part of the book, due to McCann’s keen storytelling instincts. His analysis of the political economy of Ireland is also pretty good, though not being an expert on the field I can’t judge it too much. His most controversial claim, it would seem to me, is the claim that the Protestants in the North were encouraged to fear union with the rest of Ireland by the ways in which the southern Irish elite, led by walking disaster Eamon de Valera, cuddled up to the Catholic Church, letting them set much of social policy and covering for the political elite’s betrayal of the Irish working class and embrace of capitalism. By insufficiently distancing themselves from the “Green Tories” of the south, the IRA only made everything worse, appearing to be an army for Catholic theocracy to the working class Protestants who “should” have been on the side of overthrowing their social arrangements.

McCann is persuasive here but it gets to the basic problem of class-reductionist approaches to Ireland, or anywhere really. It’s ironic- if anyone should get that sectarianism is a real, material force, it should be Trotskyites, of all people! Did the Protestants of the North of Ireland really require lessons to hate Catholics? The “psychic wage” paid to the Protestant workers by Orange supremacy is never taken into account, though McCann is honest enough to acknowledge that the Protestant working class, presented with the tableau of their police beating the shit out of Catholic working class people fighting for basic civil rights, backed the cops every single time, and soon enough participated in pogroms against the Catholics. That would seem to suggest something not entirely dependent on economic self-interest, or anyway, something that complicates self-interest.

But, in the way of leftist pains-in-the-ass, McCann stubbornly points to issues that aren’t going away by waving the green flag or settling for Good Friday. He persuasively argues that the class structure as it exists on both sides of the line in Ireland can’t allow for a prosperous and free nonsectarian working class- too much of the pie is eaten up by the bourgeoisie, and you’ll seldom find a more crooked and backwards bourgeoisie than either the Green or Orange Tories of Ireland. That the Republic is basically a parking lot for Apple’s loose cash at this point makes it clear enough. To be honest, I don’t see how an independent united Ireland — which I was raised to believe in and still think is a sine qua non for a just future there — can, on its own, sustain itself as a modern, prosperous economy. The only answer is internationalism, as McCann calls for- revolution not just in Ireland but in Britain and everywhere else too. 32 counties of independent socialism is good- add 92 more from Britain and then you’re really cooking with gas. Here’s to the day. ****’

Review- McCann, “War and an Irish Town”