'Songdogs': Joyce meets Garcia-Marquez


"Songdogs," by Colum McCann. New York: Metropolitan Books.

212 pages. $22.50

Young Irish novelists have a rich literary tradition to mine, and 30-year-old Colum McCann has taken full advantage of this legacy. His debut novel is a lyrical jewel. On the surface, "Songdogs" is a road tale about Conor Lyons, a young man in search of his mother, who disappeared when he was a child. But look a little deeper and it becomes clear that Conor's focus is much more introspective: He is hunting ghosts, trying to unravel the myths and mysteries of his parents' past.

Conor's father was a drifter in his youth, an Irish photographer who floated through Civil War-torn Spain and then Mexico, where he photographed and later married Conor's mother. The couple traveled from San Francisco through Wyoming and New York City, finally settling in Ireland, where Conor was raised. There his mother was crushed by boredom, gossip ("She was a former lover of Che Guevara. ... She was an orphan from the slums of Central America. She had failed in Hollywood."), and a hopeless longing for Mexico. Conor is engulfed by the desire to understand his mom and dad, to see what they were like before things went awry.

Retracing his parents' footsteps, Conor finds that their stories and memories collide painfully with his own observations: Their beloved old house in Mexico has been demolished to make way for a free clinic, and their friend Cici, once a wild poetess, is now a worn-out junkie.

"The past is a place that is full of energy and imagination. In remembering, we can distill the memory down," Conor writes mournfully. "It's the lethargy of the present that terrifies us all. The slowness, the mundanity, the sheer plod of each day." And yet, in Mr. McCann's hands, even the most banal moments are infused with magic.

As Conor sifts through his father's photographs, he finds: "A prostitute in a blond wig, leaning out of a window; a boy playing soccer alone in a laneway; a man on a boat dumping a dead child, covered in lime, into the sea; men in cotton trousers; boys in the rain flinging stones up at birds." These people become more real to Conor than his own present, and eventually he begins to feel that he is only half-alive, trapped in the prism of the past.

After five years of traveling this ghost trail, Conor returns to Ireland, where he finds his dad fishing in a garbage-strewn stream and living in solitary squalor. Mr. McCann skillfully juxtaposes fragmented tales of the father's adventurous, turbulent past with glimpses of his decrepit present. The old man's once strapping body is now "hugely lopsided," riddled with illness; Conor, desperately looking for a way to communicate with this cantankerous, enigmatic man, cleans his house and even bathes him.

This uneasy relationship between father and son is the core of the book, and is handled with subtlety and tenderness. Mr. McCann takes great pains to balance this emotional realism with poetic epiphanies; the result is a strange, mongrelized version of magic realism - James Joyce meets Gabriel Garcia-Marquez.

A graceful novel about the unbreachable gap between memory and reality, "Songdogs" promises a fine literary future for Colum McCann.

Joy Press co-authored "The Sex Revolts: Gender, Rebellion & Rock 'n' Roll" (just out from Harvard University Press). She is a contributing editor at Spin and British Elle and has written for New York Newsday, the Village Voice, the New York Times and the Guardian (UK).

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