Thomas McGonigle - a rollicking pub-crawl through multi-sexual contemporary Dublin, a novel full of passion, humor, and insight, which makes the reader the author’s accomplice, a witness to his heartfelt memorial to the fraught love affair between ancestors and generations

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Thomas McGonigle, St. Patrick's Day: another day in Dublin, University of Notre Dame Press, 2016.


On Saint Patrick's Day, an Irish American writer visiting Dublin takes a day trip around the city and muses on death, sex, lost love, Irish immigrant history, and his younger days as a student in Europe. Like James Joyce’s Ulysses, Thomas McGonigle’s award-winning novel St. Patrick’s Day takes place on a single day, combining a stream-of-consciousness narrative with masterful old-fashion storytelling, which samples the literary histories of both Ireland and America and the worlds they influence. St. Patrick’s Day relies on an interior monologue to portray the narrator’s often dark perceptions and fantasies; his memories of his family in Patchogue, New York, and of the women in his life; and his encounters throughout the day, as well as many years ago, with revelers, poets, African students, and working-class Dubliners.
 Thomas McGonigle’s novel is a brilliant portrait of the uneasy alliance between the Irish and Irish Americans, the result of the centuries-old diaspora and immigration, which left unsettled the mysteries of origins and legacy. St. Patrick’s Day is a rollicking pub-crawl through multi-sexual contemporary Dublin, a novel full of passion, humor, and insight, which makes the reader the author’s accomplice, a witness to his heartfelt memorial to the fraught love affair between ancestors and generations. McGonigle tells the stories both countries need to hear. This particular St. Patrick’s Day is an unforgettable one.

"This is first rate prose. From the evidence of both this book and his previously published novel, The Corpse Dream of N. Petkov, we realize we are in the presence of a great novelist in Thomas McGonigle. He puts a certain period of Dublin literary history before our eyes with freshness and honesty. Not only that but by his skillful use of modernist techniques he gives the 'Irish Novel' a long outstanding and much deserved kick up the arse into the twenty-first century. I praise the work mightily." —Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill

"A retrospective portrait of a young Irish American in Dublin, St. Patrick's Day combines the acute vision of the best fictional memoirs from both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. It has both Edward Dahlberg's acid lucidity and the caustic tone of A Fan's Notes by Frederick Exley. I make mention of these two uncommon American writers because Thomas McGonigle ranges with the lone rangers, the unique writers." —Julián Ríos
 
"Thomas McGonigle is a second-story man called Lamont Cranston. He is the shadow figure who winkles out the secrets that lie in the dark hearts of men. And what better ground to work than the dark city of Dublin, and what better meretricious myth and all the crap that goes with it than the myth of St. Patrick's Holy Ireland. Never in the history of the Western world has there been such a bogus 'state.' Heinrich Böll famously declared, "Out on the Atlantic verge lies the beating heart of Europe." What he forgot to say was that heart is worn, tattered, and badly in need of a triple bypass, one for each of the leaves on that shamrock, the symbol of this land of benighted hypocrisy." —James McCourt

"If you crack open St. Patrick's Day, prepare for a stream-of-consciousness trip around Dublin's Grosvenor Square, with plenty of stops in pubs and parties. The reader is put in the mid of author Thomas McGonigle—both Thomas then and Thomas now. He intentionally obscures when the book takes place." —South Bend Tribune

"True to the self-revealing character of stream-of-consciousness, what you see is what you get with Tom. And other characters, whatever their status, are just as much mixed bags and passers-by as he is. No particular distinction or merit inheres in being a local, a native, a national. . . . But if in its simultaneous combinations and dislocations, its momentariness and recollection, St. Patrick’s Day provokes, in the long run it’s worth it. We could do with a bit more provocation." —Dublin Review of Books




Thomas McGonigle has published three novels. The first, The Corpse Dream of N. Petkov (1987), is a treatment of the last moments of the leader of Bulgaria’s Agrarian Party, executed by hanging in 1947. The second is Going to Patchogue (1992), the story of a day trip there and back to the town on what the natives call Longh Island where the author grew up (he was born in Brooklyn in 1944).
Now, more than forty years in the making – “Dublin-Sofia-New York 1972-2015” ‑ comes St. Patrick’s Day: Another Day in Dublin – St Patrick’s Day 1972, that is, when the narrator, one “Tom McGonigle”, returns to the city where he was once a student at UCD, although the action, if that’s the name for it, is not confined to Dublin or to the year in question, but wanders hither and yon through time and space. Headlines referring to later events, such as the hunger strikes, and an evening out with, among others, a poet by the name of Nuala and a man called Jonathan who writes history about Belfast and Ulster, earn their unpredictable though unexceptional keep as readily as do recollections of Patrick Kavanagh and lectures by “Denis” at a certain university. Spatially, while the eponymous day essentially consists of a via dolorosa taking in Grogan’s, Neary’s, McDaid’s, the Russell Hotel (where Tom is staying) and ending up in a bacchanal in Poolbeg Street, there are also side-trips to Paris, Sofia, Copenhagen, Flensburg, and other international locations, not forgetting Patchogue -- a name whose resemblance to the title of a book by, say, An t-Athair Peadar is just about the only literary connection that’s beyond this novel’s range, both in terms of names dropped and (mainly modernist) techniques adapted.
But then Tom isn’t much of a one for the Irish – for the Irish in any form, animal, human or mineral (though few minerals are in evidence on the day in question). Or rather, it’s more accurate to say that he is and he isn’t. He acknowledges attachment – by blood and also by virtue of emotional and sentimental ties – but he also maintains detachment. He knows everyone, without seeming particularly close to anyone. He’s a displaced Yank, a deracinated Paddy. These and many other contrasts (not conflicts, interestingly) equip the narrator with his presence and his uneven though ineluctable momentum, and generate an extensive series of registers which constantly give way to each other, phasing in and out with no discernible pattern, with nothing, really, but their own unavoidable multiplicity. From such layering what might be described as a collage-like portrait of the protagonist emerges, as the book’s cover suggests by featuring a piece entitled Pub Crawl Down Memory Lane by New York-based, Belfast-born artist David Sandlin. Tom is in mourning, that essentially modernist condition. He’s also a boozer, a jilted lover, an ugly American -- at least in the eyes of many of his fellow imbibers, allegedly ‑ a traveller, a loner, a writer, a littérateur and an emigrant traversing not the briny the ocean but that of his consciousness of loss. The collage view of St. Patrick’s Day, an assemblage of scraps, bits of material that have outlived their use but which are still knocking around, is also reinforced by the use of different type-faces. These too signal different registers, but they also suggest the distracted, or distractable, nature of the apprehending subject and depict the mind as a sphere through which anything might pass at any given moment. There is, then, an inveterate restlessness, or a kind of passive-aggressive attitude to direction and purpose, to the novel, so that the narrative’s stream of consciousness technique, to which restlessness is endemic, spills over into all aspects of the book, aesthetic, psychological, social and whatever you’re having yourself.
This is all fine and large in its way no doubt, and it’s interesting to find in this age of literary reaction a work still committed to the indivisibility of matter and manner. One result of this commitment is that St. Patrick’s Day flaunts much of what might be expected of it. This is not to say that the story (for want of a better term) is completely random and arbitrary. Tom’s visit to Dublin, and his ability to afford it, is one outcome of the sudden and undignified death of his Donegal-born father in an upstate New York car park. Thoughts of his father’s working life as an executive tacitly question the worth of such a career, which in the end turns out to be no more solid than the drink that lubricates the moment’s passing and then itself is passed.
The mourning note is accentuated by attempts to undercut it, such as the fingering of the grimy banknotes that sustain the many rounds stood in the course of the day. The Yank has cash, but it’s a poor thing, all in all – the novel ends on an absurdist financial (and textual) note, reproducing a cheque for half a million pounds signed by Derek Mahon. Time’s uneven current and its inscrutable value is more to the point than the supposedly invariant reliability of currency. The rounds of drinks, and the rounds of the various pubs, are only the most obvious instances of a more general notion of circulation deriving from recollections of travel and, indeed, from recollections of all sorts. An interplay of repetition and difference underlies this shifting around, as “another day in Dublin” suggests, the subtitle in addition paying a downbeat homage to, as well as establishing a distance from, the book of June 16th, 1904. This same sense also resides in Tom’s active dating life as a UCD undergraduate, which features a beauty from Réunion as well as various Europeans, and above all Barbara, a local, the moment of parting from whom, casual and unnecessary as it seems, continues to haunt him (haunting being a form of returning, which is a fundamental component of circulation). But special moments with Barbara coexist with a nostalgie de la boue for other people and places from earlier days – African students, dodgy lodgings, coffee at the New Amsterdam in South Anne Street or the Copenhagen on Rathmines Road.
In view of its mentioning so many well-known writers of the day, not all favourably by any means – and no doubt readers familiar with the scene back then will recognise many of the other personages – it might be thought that St. Patrick’s Day is a roman à clef. But there’s no clef, because there’s no one thing to be unlocked. True to the self-revealing character of stream-of-consciousness, what you see is what you get with Tom. And other characters, whatever their status, are just as much mixed bags and passers-by as he is. No particular distinction or merit inheres in being a local, a native, a national. On the contrary, although they may be at home in a certain geographical sense, the great majority of the characters seem displaced, the pub acting as a wayside chapel, a time-out from the difficulties, domestic and otherwise, of so many other nameless days. Tom has found no basis for believing that being Irish is in any way a privilege. If it is, surely St Patrick’s Day is when such a privilege would take persuasive form, one combining public affirmation with personal conviction. What we have instead is the pub and its personalities, or alternatively bands and cheerleaders from Tom’s native country. Such polarities are expressions of resistance and acknowledgement, allowing Tom to state that this may be how it superficially is but that he remains unaffiliated. And these differences are additional contexts for the confession of the remorse-free estrangement that constitutes the narrative as a whole.
In the course of the concluding bacchanal Tom is told: “It was a foolish idea coming over to Ireland to relive the past, when all grown people know the past is only in books.” Well, not only. But whatever about this remark’s accuracy, it does underline the status of time in the book, both in how it is simultaneously the medium of memory and of the present (and, as noted, there are a few flash-forwards too, bringing to mind TS Eliot’s formulation: “Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future / And time future contained in time past.”) Even the remark itself is coloured by temporality, coming too late as it obviously does. The result is that, intriguing as the presences of, say, James Liddy, Leland Bardwell, Philip Hobsbaum and related figures may be, theirs are walk-on roles, appropriate representatives of that time and place. Their names remain with us, but in themselves, like Tom himself, they are embodiments of transience, just passing through. Time is a lot more powerful than any of them are, a superior character, as it were, replete with unpredictable agency and archival authority. It might be that, as Tom is told: “You talk too much of the past and your part in it.” But there’s a strong sense throughout that one of the few sure things is that spending time is our basic enterprise, an outlay whose recompense is as dubious as it is inevitable.
Those lines of Eliot continue: “If all time is eternally present / All time is unredeemable.” Tom would appear to go along with that, at least up to a point, as with everything else. On the other hand, it also seems that acknowledging transience, as memory inevitably does, is a way of not being at its mercy. And it may be argued that such acknowledgment is the novelist’s singular office, given his engagement with duration, change, mutability, persistence, the whole chronological apparatus of story. For that reason perhaps, one of a kind though St. Patrick’s Day might be, it also glancingly gives its avatars their due – Ulysses, Under the Volcano, The Ginger Man being the most broadly hinted at cases in point. Tom does come across as a something of a latter-day Stephen Dedalus, death-haunted, recalling to the reader Stephen’s memorable borrowing: Il se promène, lisant au livre de lui-même (He strolls about, reading from the book of himself). He also has elements of Lowry’s Geoffrey Firmin, a soused consul from another country, his own state of mind. And if Tom is a peppery type of presence, the kinship between this book’s pub-crawl core and the world of The Ginger Man is plain enough.
The glimpses of these works, and numerous others, in St. Patrick’s Day help the reader find some bearings in its complicated discursive domain, and they also affirm the possibility of capturing transience while at the same time rendering it. A kind of continuity, however uneven, is thus paradoxically proposed whereby the impermanence of experience is a precondition for its retention. In that way, reading and writing are models of temporality, making their mark but always moving on to the next surprising thing. The particularly layered, stylistically unadorned treatment of this type of conceptual material is undoubtedly demanding, not that Tom or his author are going to apologise for that. Nor should they. And that’s not the only reason the book could get up people’s noses. But if in its simultaneous combinations and dislocations, its momentariness and recollection, St. Patrick’s Day provokes, in the long run it’s worth it. We could do with a bit more provocation. - George O’Brien


Thomas McGonigle’s St. Patrick’s Day has won the annual Notre Dame Review Book Prize. McGonigle is the author of two previous fascinating novels: Going to Patchogue (1992) and The Corpse Dream of N. Petkov (1997). The former chronicles an American ex-pat returning home, while the latter examines the surreal landscape of politics in pre-World War I Bulgaria.
Like the late Edward Albee, Thomas McGonigle is not “a friend of mankind” (words of critic John Lahr), and like Albee he may be more European in literary sensibility. Like Albee, McGonigle worked for many years in a messenger service. Yet unlike Albee whose “The Zoo Story” was an early success, McGonigle has struggled in the shadows of the literary world, even though he has been a prolific book reviewer of primarily European novelists like Thomas Bernhard, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Milorad Pavic, Andre Bitov, Peter Nadas, Imre Kertesz, Peter Esterhazy, Cees Nooteboom, and older German novelists not read by American writers—Ernst Junger, Gottfried Benn, and Peter Handke.
St. Patrick’s Day paints one day in the life of an aspiring writer drinking his way through pubs: Grogan’s, Neary’s, McDaid’s, the Russell Hotel, those bohemian hotspots of 1972 Dublin. This quest is patterned on the 1904 Aristotelean chronology of James Joyce’s Ulysses. What has changed in the interval since Joyce abandoned Dublin is that a sophisticated underground literary world has developed amid poverty, cynicism and drink. McGonigle deftly conjures the atmosphere of desperation, mordant wit, and eloquent hypocrisy of this subculture. Humorous passages recount anecdotes from the life of poets like Patrick Kavanagh, James Liddy, and Leland Bardwell, among others.  
Amid stream-of-consciousness dislocations, this pilgrimage in Ireland is interlarded with personal recollections and memories of other locales: Paris, Sofia, Copenhagen, New York City. Collage (newspaper scraps, letters, posters, and postcards) enlivens dialog. McGonigle also has the knack of winding up syntax to land in an unexpected corner with a sudden burst of light.
The comic and abrupt deus ex machina conclusion of the novel, in terms of technique, recalls the reversal of fortune motif in The Octopus by Frank Norris wherein the poet protagonist gives up poetry and sails to India to make his fortune through colonial exploitation. While Norris appends a lengthy and terribly amusing tongue-in-cheek sermon postscript, McGonigle’s deadpan brevity remains shockingly concise. Having miraculously inherited a fortune, the protagonist will never develop as a writer. This succinct multi-layered satire with Horatio-Alger ending pokes fun at the American Dream as well as the American-Irish Postcard Dream. The novel reminds me of Samuel Beckett’s early satiric novel Murphy as well as Donleavy’s The Ginger Man, yet McGonigle’s voice and style remain uniquely his own.
If anyone attempts to read this narrative with fundamentalist understanding, the novel’s wit, radiating irony and oblique humor will remain beyond their reach. Joyce’s Ulysses concluded in ambiguity about the future of the protagonist asthete (does not the reader feel it was a mistake not to take Bloom’s offer of a tryst with Molly? Yet is not Molly a kind of Circe who might have destroyed the young writer?); McGonigle’s whimsical, documentary-like cynicism mocks the tsunami of vulgar fundamentalism that now consumes the average American novel out to strike-it-rich at the casino of the American Dream while it offers a trenchant critique of American identity lost in a Disneyland of unthinking dreams.
This book is an important literary landmark. I read an early draft of the book back in 1980 and managed to find a major editor to glance at the manuscript, but he sneered that the novel had no commercial future. Artists are often ahead of their era. It’s time America caught up to Thomas McGonigle. He has a trunk of other unpublished novels.    
St. Patrick’s Day is that rare novel that must be read with attention to stylistic shifts and an alert sense of humor; it’s a bit like the dry layers of a really good Spanish rioja. -  Kevin T. McEneaney
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Thomas McGonigle, The Corpse Dream of N. Petkov, Dalkey Archive Press, 2000. [1987.]                         

This fascinating novel presents the dying thoughts of Nikola Petkov, the last significant opposition leader to defy the Communist takeover of Bulgaria, before he was hung in 1947.

On 23 September 1947, Nikola Petkov, the last significant opposition leader to the Communist takeover in Bulgaria, was hanged in the Central Prison in Sofia, Bulgaria, sentenced to death after a rigged trial: “Petkov was hanged by the neck and was dead, slowly, as they expected . . . a poor job of it in the eyes of some, though in their eyes: well done, the life of him squeezed out, pulled out, gasped out.”
The son of a former Bulgarian prime minister and the brother of a murdered revolutionary, Petkov might have lived out his life as a gentleman of leisure in Paris or Venice. Instead, he had returned to Sofia as the leader of the Agrarian Party, was active in the underground, was imprisoned in the concentration camps, and later was minister of the first postwar government in Bulgaria.
In a novel that mixes history and fiction, biography and imagination, Thomas McGonigle records the last minutes of Petkov’s life and death, a death that his executioners purposely intended to be prolonged and painful. At the same time, we see glimpses of the author sitting at his typewriter in New York City reconstructing Petkov’s dying moments as Petkov remembers and reflects upon his and his country’s past.
McGonigle has resurrected for us a political and historical figure, as well as a country, that has been forgotten in the West. In the very best sense, this is a subversive novel that remains faithful to both history and art.

"Why a young American writer in the 1980s chose to imagine seriously the end of a Bulgarian revolutionary is cause for wonder in itself. That he also seriously employs new narrative techniques to do so is doubly impressive. One comes away from this little book with a bitter taste at the back of the throat, a taste that may very well be that of recent Eastern European history." --Andrei Codrescu


"[A] thoroughly informed and deeply disturbing meditation on the ultimate futility of overdetermined conviction, of ideological commitment, of absolute politics itself." --James McCourt

"Everyone knows that dead men tell no tales. But this book offers a suggestion that maybe it's a shame they don't. Here's a fine effort to capture disappearing history—history that vanishes by being forgotten. And here's a sharp reminder that all countries are potentially obscure, and all people potentially unknown."—Madison Smartt Bell

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Thomas McGonigle, Going to Patchogue, Dalkey Archive Press, 1992.

Patchogue is a village on Long Island sixty miles from New York City. A man now married and living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan decides to return to the village where he grew up. He carries the dead heaped on his shoulders and the memory of the first love that sent him forth from the village, both fortunate and cursed by this memory. The trip to and from Patchogue assumes the contours of the oldest journey of all: the search for paradise, impelled by the embarrassment of reality. Yes, it is always greener on the other side of the fence, but then that grass has been well fertilized by heaps of decay and rottenness.
After a prologue of facts about Patchogue calling to mind the opening of Moby-Dick, the book divides naturally into three inevitable parts: the going to, the being in, and the coming back from Patchogue by way of Bulgaria, Turkey, and Italy. Each section assembles itself around the moment of the journey: the going to is fraught with hesitation as the past is accumulated to qualify the traveler for this journey; the being in underlines how anticipation is usually better than . . . while the coming back provides the courage to continue the journey to the heaven of the known and the knowing.
Written in a prose that recalls Céline’s, Going to Patchogue is a moral book that will be misjudged as racist and bitter only by those who thought Swift wanted modestly to put Irish babies on sale in the London meat markets. It is a book of flesh and guts, of blood, sperm, and saliva. But to go to Patchogue is also to go to Paris, Venice, Istanbul, to Sofia. Because the traveler doesn’t want to repeat the same journey back, he returns via Bulgaria, Istanbul, and the Villa Paradiso in Padua, the ironically named journey’s end of this travel book for those who never travel, who never want to travel.

Opening with snippets of information about the Long Island, N.Y., town of Patchogue which, the reader is warned, may not be true, McGonigle ( The Corpse Dream of N. Petkov ) sets the tone for this novel of memory with a narrator contemplating suicide. Tracing a journey to Patchogue from "the City," a stay there and a return, the narrator (whose name is Tom McGonigle) tells an episodic and disjointed tale in earthy and demented prose, echoing that of Celine, who is often quoted. Into his stream-of-consciousness prose McGonigle splices railway schedules, poetry, reproductions of handwritten notes and scenes from a play, all of which work to expand the boundaries of the narrative. At the end of his peregrinations, the narrator comes to realize that his life has been empty and pointless: he is left with merely the ashes of his experiences. While many may find this literate and haunting novel difficult, others will treasure it as an exploration of those recesses of the mind where we can be most honestly ourselves. For McGonigle that territory is called Patchogue. - Publishers Weekly

In his second novel, McGonigle ( The Corpse Dream of N. Petkov , Dalkey Archive Pr., 1987) explores the American literary tradition of place as a determinant of identity--you are where you are--and the search for self. Through his writing, McGonigle travels to his hometown of Patchogue, Long Island; Sofia, Bulgaria; and various other sites in Europe, seeking a sense of self and personal well being and to recapture a love for schoolmate Melinda, who had rejected him. In Patchogue, instead of Melinda, he encounters less noteworthy characters from his past, some hilarious, others pathetic. Much of the time, the reader is unsure if the narrator is in New York City, Patchogue, or Bulgaria, which adds to the general atmosphere of displacement. McGonigle writes in various styles of fiction and nonfiction, and includes vague literary references. The book will not appeal to every reader, but is recommended for literary fiction collections. - Harold Augen





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