- The Washington Times - Friday, July 8, 2011

SAINTS AND SINNERS
By Edna O'Brien
Back Bay Books, Little Brown, $13.99,242 pages

To call Edna O'Brien prolific is like calling Lady Gaga unusual. It doesn’t quite cover it. Over the past 50 years, Ms. O’Brien, who turned 80 in December, has written 27 novels, two biographies (T.S. Eliot and James Joyce) and one play. Her first books were banned in her native Ireland for their sexual content and blunt language, but time heals all sorts of things and in 2009 she received the Bob Hughes Lifetime Achievement Award at the Irish Book Awards. In “Saints and Sinners,” she demonstrates yet again why she deserved it.

In the 11 stories that make up this volume, Ms. O'Brien gives the reader what her title promises, though in several of them it’s hard to decide whether the main character is saint or sinner, which I’m sure is intentional.

The first story, “Shovel Kings,” begins in an Irish pub in London, early in the afternoon of St. Patrick’s Day. The only three patrons are a tangle-haired woman who is talking to herself, the narrator, who is early for an appointment with her doctor, and a large man whom the narrator can’t help but notice.

“His blue jacket had seen better days. He wore a black felt homburg hat, and his white hair fell in coils almost to his shoulders. His skin was sallow, but his huge hands were a dark nut brown, and on the right hand he had a lopsided knuckle, obviously caused by some injury. … He could have been any age, and he seemed like a man on whom a permanent frost had settled.”

She learns his name, Rafferty, and on subsequent visits, his story. Forty years ago, at age 15, he came to London with his father and got a job digging ditches. The father soon left, but he stayed, and the kinship of the men with whom he worked, several of them not much older than he, became all the family he thought he needed.

But the drink finally took him, and though there were moments of hope over the years, it took him again and again. And when he spoiled his one big chance, he knew he no longer had a future. “Mind yourself,” are the last words he says to the narrator. “He did not shake hands, and, as on the first morning, he raised his calloused right hand in a valediction that bespoke courtesy and finality. He had cut me out, the way he had cut his mother out, not from a hardness of heart, but from a heart that was immeasurably broken.”

The permanent frost had settled.

All the stories in this collection, most of which have women as the narrator or protagonist (or both) are sad, but the saddest is the first one. In “Sinners,” a widow who has had to convert her beloved home into a bed-and-breakfast after her husband’s death, rents a lovely room to a couple and their grown daughter, all three of whom turn out to be decidedly unlovely.

“Inner Cowboy,” one of the few stories that does not feature a female, is about Curly, a gentle soul who, by nature and necessity, tries to keep his life uncomplicated. Curly is, as people used to say before the language police arrived, “not all there.” He works in a hardware store: “He had a brown shop coat, even though he wasn’t let serve customers.” That last line is pure Edna O'Brien, a simple declaratory sentence that tells the reader so much more than it appears to. Curly tries to keep out of harm’s way, but life, as Ms. O'Brien tells it, won’t have it.

In “Manhattan Medley,” one of the longer stories, we observe the change in attitude of a young woman who knowingly begins an affair with a married man. In a masterful late-in-the-story paragraph, Ms. O'Brien shows us how much the narrator has changed: “I detest these cozy hush-hush affairs, which your kind excels at. Women in their upstairs drawing rooms, made up to the nines, at lunch hour, standing by the folds of their ruched curtains, with glazed smiles. Sherry and gulls’ eggs in wait. The marital chamber stripped of all traces of a spouse. Lamb cutlets and frozen peas and lots of darling, darling.”

Many of the stories in this rewarding collection feature the class divide so beloved as a subject by so many Irish writers. There’s the rich and charming and evil Mr. McSorley and the well-meaning but condescending Mrs. Coughlan, both of whom will be especially familiar to readers with Fenian forebears. In each of these stories you’ll hear echoes of your old granny or your unforgiving aunt or your wonderful storytelling uncle.

Oh, it’s a grand book, I tell you.

John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.