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issue 54: July - August 2006

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The Dead Yard by Adrian McKinty: Serpent’s Tail, 2006

I was surprised and delighted when McKinty’s third novel arrived, not just because I had thoroughly enjoyed the others but because it turned out he had written a sequel to the debut novel Dead I May Well Be. Unexpected, but on hindsight, protagonist Michael Forsythe was far too well crafted to be left on a scrap heap, so the lippy, violent, quick-thinking Irishman living in the US is back, prosthetic foot at all.

Readers who missed Dead I May Well Be gently get the idea of what happened but I heavily recommend tracking down a copy. The Dead Yard picks up the story five years later. Michael, the narrator, has been in the witness protection programme, a wanted man with a contract out on his life after killing mobster Darkey White and his gang. He finally gets a chance for a holiday and chooses Spain—he speaks Spanish—but is soon involved in a pitched riot between Irish and Millwall football fans gathered in Tenerife for a friendly match. When the two sides come to their senses and realise that the true enemy are the Spanish police and German tourists, Michael wants out, seeing the danger ahead, but it is too late. He is arrested and faces, so he is told, about ten years in prison. Then British Intelligence arrives in the lovely shape of Samantha Caudwell who offers a deal; sentence scrapped if he infiltrates a rogue IRA cell in New England. To further sweeten, weaken and ensnare him she also says they won’t send him back to the horrors of the Mexican prison where he lost his foot in the process of escaping.

Against the wall, Michael is forced to play ball, and once in New England he appears to protect Kit, the daughter of cell boss Gerry McCaghan, during an assassination attempt, a set up that the FBI are half controlling in order to help the Brits make this implant. Now, with a daughter-saved calling card as an introduction, Michael wins over Gerry and his bodyguards, including the brutal and dangerous Touched, and soon successfully infiltrates the gang. But young Kit is rather beautiful and Michael, who does tend to think with his dick on too many occasions, knows "that because of her the mission was going to be much harder, much more complicated, and ultimately much more dangerous". Correct Michael, very correct, so put it back in your pants, get on with the mission and things are going to be pretty easy. Oh! What a surprise, he’s not listening.

The pace is relentless. The first book allowed for more humour and in the tedium of the Mexican prison, there was time to slow down and reflect, but in The Dead Yard it is pretty much non-stop action which gets ever more brutal and insane, as Michael lives his growing lies, covering mistakes with his quick wits—thinking on his foot as it were. If you like your noir staples such as beautiful women, betrayal and murder, mixed with a heavy dose of blood, crunched bones, body parts flying around and more blood, served up with some throwaway humour, you need look no further, McKinty delivers all of this with the added bonus that the writing, especially much of the dialogue, is pitch perfect excellent.

Throughout the book there is mention of Bridgett, the girl in Dead1 who Michael more or less unwittingly turned into a smart, vicious mobster. Should there be a third book in the series (with the word dead in it?), it is obvious that Michael, very punch drunk after the beatings in this novel, must at some point go head to head with Bridgett, a virtual alter-ego; and the very thought of that confrontation excites the hell out of me. I could write another paragraph on how, as a reader, I would like to see how that might possibly play out, but The Dead Yard is the focus here, a book nicely timed and powerful enough to distract the disgruntled, pissed off male sunbather from the pain of his glowing, throbbing, embarrassing sunburn. MGS

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Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert: Viking Adult, 2006

Reeling from the fallout of a devastating divorce and a subsequent broken relationship, writer Elizabeth Gilbert turns towards travel to re-enervate her body, mind, and soul. Four months in Italy exploring the pleasures of food, followed by four months of prayer in India, to find a "lasting experience of God," and finally, four months in Indonesia, learning to balance "the urge for pleasure against the longing for devotion," add up to a year-long voyage of self-discovery for the thirty-four-year-old New Yorker. There's an engaging story behind each of her combinations, which sets the tone for Eat, Pray, Love. We may not agree with what the author does or even the way she thinks, but we can't help but be swept along by her exuberant narrative.

During the painful aftermath of her divorce, Gilbert decides to learn Italian, which she has always found "more beautiful than roses." The language, it turns out, is the only source of pleasure in the time of her unhappiness. Thus, when Gilbert decides to heal her body by immersing herself in simple joys, she looks towards Rome, Italy, to "live for a while in a culture where pleasure and beauty are revered."

Her adoration of Italy is contagious—only a curmudgeon would fail to be moved by the simple delight she finds in a velvety peach, or in a sunlit afternoon idled away people-watching. Her enjoyment of such "harmless pleasures" is ardent; a full page is devoted to the description of a pizza she falls in love with, and there's a paean to the Italian language that manages to be simultaneously passionate and scholarly. In between eating gelato for breakfast and speaking Italian with a gentleman named Luca Spaghetti, Gilbert practices the art of bel far niente, the pleasure of doing nothing.

The Roman holiday, somewhat unsurprisingly, leads to happiness, which, in Gilbert's case, is a special triumph: she has been on medication for depression since her divorce. For peace, however, Gilbert must travel further, to the Indian ashram of a famous spiritual teacher.

Her choice of India is again dictated by a post-divorce experience: she attends a talk by her (then) boyfriend's spiritual teacher in New York, and upon hearing this "radiantly beautiful Indian woman" speak, Gilbert gets "chill bumps over [her] whole body, even across the skin of [her] face." Believing she's at last found her guide to spirituality, she resolves to visit the teacher’s ashram near Mumbai.

Four months spent in meditation and yoga should enable Gilbert to achieve a higher state of consciousness that ultimately results in a state of divine bliss; i.e., an experience of God. With its quiet environment and lack of distractions, the ashram is the ideal spot to devote oneself to such an attempt. But meditation requires a calm mind, and Gilbert's mind, instead of resting in stillness, is, as she ruefully confesses, either "(1) bored, (2) angry (3) depressed (4) anxious or (5) all of the above."

This section of the memoir describes meditation techniques in some detail. Not a problem in itself, but Liz Gilbert is the life and soul of this party, the host who makes us drop our inhibitions and enjoy ourselves, and when she's not around, the party sags. Thus, when she devotes three pages to explaining the concept of kundalini shakti (divine energy) in different religions, or tells us in detail about "man’s inherently flawed state," it falls flat, since she's not animating the pages with her active participation.

Perhaps aware of the esotericism of some of her material, Gilbert's prose is determinedly reader-friendly—sometimes to the point of cuteness. Describing the moment of her union with God, she writes "… I entered the void…. The void was God, which means that I was inside God. But not in a gross, physical way—not like I was Liz Gilbert stuck inside a chunk of God's thigh muscle." Such false notes, however, are rare; Gilbert's path to enlightenment is mostly paved with pitch-perfect prose.

Having pampered her body and calmed her mind, Gilbert must now find a balance between pleasure and devotion. She therefore flies to Bali to spend four months with a medicine man she'd met some years ago, who had remarked then on the lack of equilibrium in her life. Although the stakes are low in this leg of her trip (Gilbert has found God and happiness—enough for most humans), the reader is still eager to come along for the ride—testament as much to Gilbert's likeable persona as to her compulsively readable writing.

The Balinese, she explains, are the "global masters of balance, the people for whom the maintenance of perfect equilibrium is an art, a science and a religion." Such equilibrium is achieved by a deep understanding of the external universe, so as to locate one's position in the cosmos. The latter is calibrated in terms of a person’s relationships—with God, with spouse, family, and friends, and with the environment.

Gilbert sets about exploring her external universe—the town of Ubud—with gusto. In the process, she is revealed as the ideal traveler. Curious yet respectful about cultural practices new to her, the open-minded Gilbert makes friends wherever she goes. Without glossing over the island's troubles (including its violent past, and the recent terrorist attacks), she succeeds in portraying Bali as a destination that nourishes both body and soul. After reading her descriptions of the local landscape and society, few will not long to book a one-way ticket to Denpasar.

Suffice it to say that in Bali, Gilbert finds everything she's looking for—and then some. Love, happiness, peace, and harmony are all hers—and who would begrudge her such fulfillment? This writer's generosity of spirit is equaled only by her actions; we cannot help but wish her well. Eat, Pray, Love charms, even as it beckons us to adventure. Niranjana Iyer

© 2006 The Barcelona Review
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issue 54: July - August 2006

f i c t i o n

Josip Novakovich: Ideal Goalie
Julian Daragiati: World Cup
Nickolay Todorov: Penalty in Injury Time
Rob McClure Smith: Easterhouse
Alex Mitchell: The Society for Recreating the Hachiko Statue
Kathryn Simmonds: A Quiet Drink

picks from back issues
     football stories:
Irvine Welsh: A Fault on the Line
Suhayl Saadi: Sufisticated Football
Chris Reid: Scorin' for Ireland

q u i z

Sports in Literature
answers to last issue's quiz, Animals in Literature

b o o k   r e v i e w s

The Dead Yard by Adrian McKinty
Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

r e g u l ar  f e a t u r e s

Book Reviews (all issues)
TBR Archives (authors listed alphabetically)
TBR Archives  (by issue)

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