BOMBS EXPLODE IN BELFAST and young children, who know little of the ways of their parents, die. It happens all too often in Northern Ireland, a bleeding sore of a place where a British accent is the law and religion is the best excuse around for killing your friends. Pipe bombs, savage little devils that will indiscriminately swallow up Protestant and Catholic legs, are very popular in Ulster now, but they do not have many friends. Bombs like that maim everyone they meet, and the people who throw them do not apologize. They are not supposed to; they are just doing their job.
These are the sad facts that Father Thomas O'Neill, the fortuitously-named hero of James Reid's The Offering, must learn all too slowly. For O'Neill--a pro-Irish Nationalist Catholic priest in a pro-Irish Nationalist Catholic parish in Cambridge, Mass.--learning to see through the glamor and romance that surround the struggle in Ulster is an unusually difficult process. Like so many Irish-Americans, O'Neill has been raised by his good Catholic parents to view the agony of Ulster as a sort of holy war against the last vestiges of British heathenism--a holy war that demands support from the entire Catholic world.
Unlike a lot of Irish-Americans, though, O'Neill is fond of lending support in a big way--by raising money from all the paunchy middle-class accountants and cab drivers who are convinced that a donation to "The Cause" will buy them an ounce or two of secondhand glory. It's not quite like selling indulgences, as the priests were fond of doing in the good old days, but it's close enough. And that makes it tougher for O'Neill to back out of the deal when he realizes where all that money is going.
Where it is going, of course, is not to the hardy band of romantics that gamboled their way about the Easter Rebellion as only Sean O'Casey could imagine. Fluther Good and his friends are dead now, and with them has passed away so much that was respectable about "The Cause" in Ireland. It really doesn't matter any more which side you are on. The Catholic Provisionals of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) are just as bloodstained as the Protestants of the Ulster Defense League--so why bother to choose, when both are in the business of slaughtering the defenseless? The war in Ireland today is not a war for freedom, religious or otherwise; it is the tragic playing-out of a bloody script of instinctive hatred, of malice and fury for their own sakes. Whatever merits remain in the IRA's arguments for the liberation of Ulster--and they are considerable--have been irretrievably submerged in the centuries-old game of kill-me-kill-you. It is, in short, hardly the noblest of causes.
BUT CONVINCING the Irish of that is not a task for mortals. Dreams outlive men, and the imagined glory of "The Cause" has persisted despite the rise of a new generation of killers to fight for it. Taking that dream away from an Irishman--even a State-side cousin like Father Thomas O'Neill--requires major psychic surgery, cutting and tearing away at years of proper and rigid upbringing, decades of instinctive hatred. It is hardly a task that can be accomplished in a day or two--it must take months, even years, before the realization sets in. It is, in fact, a marvelous subject for a book.
That may have been Reid's idea when he set out to write The Offering, but somewhere along the way he got lost. Instead of a powerful tale of emotional and cultural conflict, Reid has written an extraordinarily convoluted and cliche-ridden spy story, replete with stoic federal agents, femmes fatales and toothless goons with a penchant for breaking people's kneecaps (a fine old Irish revolutionary tradition). The accent is definitely on the shoot-em-up angle; and if Father O'Neill behaves less like a man of the cloth and more like a pleasantly libidinous edition of Robert Redford--well, at least you know who they've got lined up for the movie.
For all that, though, The Offering is not a bad book. Granted, the "Irishmen" found therein speak largely in some strange tongue found only in that mysterious land that produces moronic commercials for Irish Spring deodorant soap. And granted, the reader sometimes finds it difficult to believe that Reid's characters can daily consume enough Irish whiskey to stagger a water buffalo, yet retain enough brain cells to run around breaking each other's kneecaps with undiminished fervor. But trivialities and stereotypes aside, Reid still manages to entertain: his federal agents and seductresses, while quite familiar, are still endearing. And his friendly collection of priests--even though they don't act like any priests this reviewer has run across--are an interesting contrast to the Barry Fitzgerald-Bing Crosby model that has been floating around American fiction for too long.
Perhaps most important. Reid manages in a fine Irish fashion to carry a story. All the absurd trivialities of plot and subplot--with IRA goons, federal goons, British goons and even a few goons on personal retainer to the President of the United States, all doing their best to run each other over and muddy the storyline--finally mesh together in Hollywood style. Perhaps the setting makes the book more interesting than it really is: having set his story in Cambridge, Reid takes a name-dropper's perverse delight in alluding regularly to parts of the Harvard campus, which he invariably misspells. It is simply fun to sit back and feel superior to the author because you know that there is only one "1" in Eliot House.
But there is really much more than that. For what Reid has begun, despite all the excesses and unavoidable artistic sacrifices to the commercial novelist's form book, is an intriguing story of a man at odds with his culture and his deepest beliefs. And it is all the more interesting because Father Thomas O'Neill is not just a little bit like Ireland itself: religious but unwilling to be stereotyped as such, bothered about his past, uncertain of his future, and unwilling to make the final wager in blood to achieve what he has been told all his life he must do, O'Neill is very much the typical Irishman of the modern era. In that sense, it borders on the tragic that Reid did not see fit to give O'Neill to the world without the necessary coterie of cops and robbers trailing in his wake.
Of course, it is easy to exaggerate the significance of Reid's book. It is, at bottom, precisely what Reid meant it to be--a fast paced, mildly entertaining, enjoyable if not particularly penetrating thriller. On that level, it succeeds, if only because it is fun. On the level of social statement, as an analysis of a shift in basic cultural attitudes, Reid's own short-sightedness has sadly dictated that the book could not possibly succeed. But--like so much of Irish history--it is certainly an intriguing failure.
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