I finished reading Saints and Sinners on my train commute into Atlanta last week. (I have the option to drive to work, but having an extra two hours to read – and, specifically, to read Edna O’Brien – tips the balance in the train’s favor most days.) O’Brien was my train companion for several weeks, in fact, and she reminded me why I love short stories. Not only can they be digested in a single journey (nice feeling of accomplishment = confidence boost), but when you’re working within a shorter framework, every word has to count. You can’t spare words for excessive backstory or gratuitous description.
As train rides go, MARTA gets high points for eclecticism. Working class folk on their way home from a graveyard shift, homeless men and women on a never-ending quest for a bed, street preachers delivering testimonies, tourists and travelers en route to one place or another looking for the Aquarium and Lenox Mall, college students on their way to Little 5 Points to buy incense (‘incense’). An entire train full of O’Brien characters, in fact. I even sat next to an Irish man once, and though he had never heard of Edna O’Brien, he had her immigrant’s restlessness, talked endlessly about his country even as he was preparing to fly to Edinburgh to ask an uncle for work.
Saints and Sinners has a few of those characters, too. In the story “Shovel Kings,” the London trench diggers (all Irish migrant workers) follow a similar path in their quest for work. We’ve heard this immigrant story before: men leave their wives, their mothers, abandon one poverty for another, become the backs on which an empire is built, are unable to fulfill their mother’s final wish and visit her on her deathbed, a stain that only Jameson can wash away, succumb to alcoholism, reform, succumb again, and emerge finally the aged seers and storytellers who sit in their usual booths and tell stories of that young trench-digger, J.J., who got his head knocked off when the hydraulic slipped and the lever on the digger gave way. It would be an overtold story if it weren’t 2012 and Ireland’s economy had continued to grow instead of burst, opening the door to yet another period of struggles and feeding the world yet another generation of migrant workers, like my seat mate on MARTA.
Since publishing her Country Girls Trilogy in the 1960s, O’Brien has written about Ireland as someone who has fled it. The distance provokes nostalgia in some, but O’Brien achieves astute perception of its flaws and a deep love for its people, a love that is unromantic and often critical.
In another story, “My Two Mothers” we see this love of a daughter for her mother who, like O’Brien’s, disapproves of her writing stories. When the grown daughter moves to London, the mother sends her handmade lace doilies, as if to impress upon her a more feminine lifestyle. Still, when her guard is down, we learn stories of the righteous mother’s life when she worked for a time in New York, the man whose arm she linked and the red light saloon they walked past one night and joked about visiting. Or was it a joke? In answer to the question, O’Brien gives us “Manhattan Medley,” where a woman conducts an affair with a famous man. The pair stroll and stroll through the city, and she is overcome by “the taste, the smell, the touch, the aftertouch and permeability” of him. Perhaps along their strolls, they also pass a wanton night club and get ideas about going in
O’Brien is as relevant today with her stories of the past and near past as she was with The Country Girls in the 1960s. She read new to me on the Metro Atlanta Train line, out of place one might think, but not really in the end.