restricted access Michael Stephens: The Brooklyn Book of the Dead
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A handful of years ago, novelist Mary Gordon published a piece in the New York Times Book Review lamenting what she calculated as the small number (actually none, excepting herself) of Irish-American novelists among her contemporaries. Letters to the editor followed, citing a couple dozen Irish-American writers of fiction born around, or after, 1945 that she had overlooked . One of the most prominent, on the longer, more generous list, was Michael Stephens, whose first novel, Season at Coole, established himasoneoftheyoungestandmostperceptivevoicessurveyingIrishAmerican territory. In a way that would further mystify Gordon, Stephens went on to becometheleastparochialofwriters;since1972hehaspublishedmore than a dozen books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His titles include Lost in Seoul (nonfiction) and After Asia (poems), which are volumes with a distinctly international flavor. The University of Georgia Press has just issued an award-winning new collection of essays, Green Dreams: Essays Under the Influence of the Irish, which returns the globe-trotting Stephens to Irish-American subjects. Michael Stephens: The Brooklyn Book of the Dead 292 293 SeasonatCoole,republishedasthesecondtitlefromDalkeyArchive Press ten years ago, also helped launch that successful Illinois-based small literary publishing house, which has its own vaguely Irish air. Stephens’s new novel, his third, The Brooklyn Book of the Dead, returns to the first novel’s cast of characters; the Coole progeny. Sixteen in all, they assemble nearly a quarter-century after we left them last in Season for the funeral of their father, who, though he died in Florida, has been transported back to Brooklyn, as was his wish, for services and burial. The “action” in Brooklyn is limited to the comic and inspired yakkingandreflectionofthebrothersandsistersastheycontemplatetheir newly dead father’s, and their mother’s (deceased some years earlier) lives and legacies. If there is a hallmark of Irish-American writers, it might be an overdeveloped fondness for using funeral parlors and saloons – all claustrophobic rooms – as fictional settings. Sixteen voices are certainly enough for a chorus, and Stephens does a remarkable job in keeping their collective requiem aloft. “If the family had a gift,” he writes of Emmett, one of the Coole boys, now middle-aged, “it was this art of the pontificating knuckle-headed know-nothing – a specialty, you might call it – especially to a roomful of brothers who could not verify anything he said, could not prove the veracity of any historical or imaginative facts Emmett of the crime waves cared to put forward to them in their grief and cups.” Stephens’s novel quickly becomes a form of chamber opera: dour, yet humorous, schmoozing by the brothers and sisters punctuated by knowing arias on family bonds and that fabled place, Brooklyn, the borough of immigrants: “After all, the Cooles were once the black Irish of this burg, the black pigs and green niggers of Marion Street, and the musical strains 294 of this hellhole fit their temperament – and maybe still did – as much as any ethnic group that ever commandeered the broad vistas of these ramshackle streets.” Stephens is able to fashion myth out of sociology as we get the biographies, the scraps of lives, of each of the siblings – Nora, for instance , who chose to stay at home: “Let Augusta and Eileen work in their dress shop and sweater factory ; Nora would sweep the floor – not cook – but stoke the coal fires in the basement, wash the dishes and make the beds, and anything she needed to know about the outside, she’d find out later in the day when one of her sisters brought home the Daily News, whose pages were proof enough that Nora had made a wise decision.” We also get relatives: “Uncle Jack was the first person, either on the Moody or the Coole side, to join Alcoholics Anonymous, though he was not yet in the program . This was a dry run. He was not drinking; he white-knuckled it, boring in on the television and the baseball game, trying to avoid the sounds emanating from the backyard, those drunken laughs and shouts, the pawing and hoots.” Brooklyn is, indeed, a singular Irish wake, and the reader might be a stranger stumbling in blindly to the service, but by the time he or she departs, having watched the old man finally put into the ground, the whole prodigious Coole family – its hopes, dreams, pasts, present, and likely futures – delicately and forcefully has been made indelible on our own memories: “They would drive off in all directions, back out to the Island, to Newark and the airport, across...


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