The blurb on the cover of my library's copy of The Dark says that John McGahern is one of the best stylists in prose now at work, which must be out of date because McGahern has been dead for 10 years. I find it very interesting that Penguin, the publisher of this edition, chose to put this specific blurb on the cover, which is of a muted misty hill, with a lone old man, probably a priest, his back to the photographer, pushing a bicycle. The cover conjures images of rural Ireland and family strife and loneliness, all of which appear in The Dark. It's a good fit. On the other hand, the blurb isn't quite the match for the content.
McGahern's prose isn't as stylish or modernist or fancy as the phrase "best stylist in prose" would have you believe. When I started The Dark, I thought I was going to read another author heavily influenced by Joyce, full of long bits of introspection and authorial playfulness. I can't say that I was disappointed by what I read, but I can't say I was pleased either.
The Dark traces the sexual and emotional development of an unnamed sixteen year old boy in rural Ireland, crushed under the thumb of his abusive widower father. There's also a ring of sexual abuse as well, but that's lightly touched. As the boy grows older, he seeks ways of escaping his father, either through the priesthood or through school. The priesthood doesn't quite fit the boy, as he struggles with intense (and natural) sexual desires, and an almost constant desire to masturbate. He imagines girls all the time, girls with pretty dresses and white thighs and heaving breasts, all described to us in sensual detail as he masturbates into a sock.
So instead, the boy chooses school, specifically University. Helped by a wise Brother Benedict, he studies and studies and studies until he passes all of his exams. It turns out he is one of the smartest people in the area, but his father disapproves. When the boy is finally accepted into University based on his scores and a scholarship, it seems that he has finally escaped his father. However, things do not end up where we think they will, in regards to the boy's future, and his relationship with his father.
It's a tragedy that all Irish authors toil under the utterly obliterating eclipse that is James Joyce. With The Dark, it's not an insult to compare it to Joyce. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and The Dark share some similarities, but almost none of them stylistically. No, instead, McGahern enjoys the gift of his own authorial voice, his mundane and ethereal style that fits in neatly with the mixture of the theological and the banal.
Scene after scene after scene, we sit in the protagonist's head as he struggles with his faith, his father and his sexuality. The torments of the Church and his own mind become prisons, when he's already in one of his father's devising.
I liked McGahern's prose. I thought it was a rare instance of style, content and form working together in tandem. What I could have done with, in terms of The Dark, was more of it. This is a short novel, with a leisurely pace, but there isn't quite enough of it. McGahern's doing some fairly complex things with imagery, such as the boy's bed, and when McGahern gets to the final page, the final stab in the heart for the reader, I was left wanting more. Not more after the final moment, but more leading up to it.
I thought The Dark was good, but it seemed small. A talent such as McGahern's should use a bigger canvas. I really enjoyed the book, but now I'm going to seek out what they think is his masterpiece, and then see what this excellent author can really do.