Niall Williams, This Is Happiness (Bloomsbury 2019)
Before the meeting: When we discussed Niall Williams’s History of the Rain in October, a number of people had also read his next book, This Is Happiness. December’s chooser, impressed by their enthusiasm, decided we should all read it.
The book’s first sentence, ‘It had stopped raining’, which sits on a page by itself, is pretty much identical with the final sentence of the earlier book, and the tiny, backward village of Faha in West Ireland is again the setting, but the bulk of the narrative takes place in an earlier period, and there is no obvious reference to the characters or events of History of the Rain. It’s the story of the coming of electricity to the village; a coming of age story of young Noe, who has taken leave of the seminary and is telling the story as an old man in the USA; and a big romantic story of love lost and found by Christy, an older man who befriend Noe.
Page 75* must be one of the book’s few pages that doesn’t mention the absence of rain. It happens in the thick of one of the book’s comic set pieces. It’s not the set piece when the lights go down and the cinema comes alive with amorous grapplings, or the one where Noe goes to the communion rail at Sunday Mass in order to get a good look at the woman Christy left at the altar, or the spectacular one where he is knocked unconscious by a falling electricity pole. On page 75 Noe and Christy are on the first of a number of epic pub crawls.
These pub crawls are as much about music as about alcohol, music performed by men who are shy and nondescript until they start playing, and then are brilliant conduits of a great folk tradition. On this first adventure, when the evening is well under way, Christy startles Noe and everyone else in Craven’s pub by starting to sing:
Not only was Christy singing, he was singing with screwed-up eyes and fists by his side a ballad about love. He was singing it full-throated and full-hearted and before he had reached the second verse it was clear even to Roo the dog that a passionate truth was present in that place. It wasn’t only that this didn’t happen in Craven’s, it was that there was something raw in it, something deeply felt, that was, even to those who had descended blinking into the umbrae and penumbrae of numberless bottles of stout, immediately apparent and made those who first looked now look away.(page 73)
Christy has come to Faha as a worker in the great electricity project. This episode is our first inkling of his profoundly romantic reason for signing up for the work. Not so obviously, it prepares us for the major role music is to play in Noe’s story. Page 75 itself is a beautiful piece of misdirection. After Christy has sung, Noe writes:
I did the only thing I could do. I went to the counter and got two bottles of stout.
Those bottles are followed by another two, and then another. Greavy the guard arrives and declares that it’s Closing Time (as Noe says, this is one more way in which Faha lags behind the times), but the two of them are incapable of moving. Alcohol-based humour usually leaves me cold, but Niall Williams’s version made me laugh out loud. I suppose the whole book could be read as an extended Irish joke: the villagers have an almost superstitious awe of the one telephone in town, and the coming of electricity has almost cosmic significance for them. If you read the whole book like that, the stereotypical Irish drunkenness in this passage is representative (including the sly invocation of Waiting for Godot):
Getting up proved aspirational. There was the idea of it, quite clear. Unmistakably clear now. There were hands placed on knees for push-off. There was a Right now. There was another when that failed to produce action. A Right so following. And still nothing. Between thought and verb a vacancy, not intended, but not grievous, just gently perplexed, and in that perplex the realisation that Craven’s was not in fact such a bad place at all, was downright comfortable in fact, in fact there were few places on this earth as agreeable. True? Too true. A person could stay here, could stay right here and be quite happy now, quite, for a very long time. What’s your rush? There’s no rush. All the problems of the world could be settled right here.
Will we go so?
I don’t want to minimise the book’s humour. Far from it. But there’s a seriousness to it that page 75 gives no clue of. Christy’s romance is genuinely touching. The villagers’ resistance to the coming of electricity is more than comic: and these villagers are described as custodians of their land, defending an ancient culture under siege by capitalism – without being at all heavy handed, the narrative reminds us that the Irish were the first people to be colonised by the English. The dramatic decline in the Catholic Church’s power since the 1950s is deftly evoked both in Noe’s commentary and in his own story: his turning away from his priestly vocation is a tiny reflection of the ending of Church-domination in Ireland at large.
After the meeting: There were seven of us. Covid–19 and other coronaviruses kept some away, while one or two had better things to do – and one sent video of spectacular drone art over Sydney Harbour.
This was our end-of-year meeting so we had other business besides the book, but it generated quite a bit of discussion. The discussion was unusual in that quite a few of us read out favourite passages. Indeed, two of the absentees sent lists of quotes – it’s that kind of book. One interesting insight was that the narrative as we receive it is created by an old man looking back on a key moment in his youth, making a story out of it, and casting a benevolent glow over the community in which that moment happened.
Other business, besides of course the plentiful food including a splendid pavlova, included a Kris–Kringle book exchange with the usual mixture of cautious delight and polite almost-hidden dismay, and a poetry reading. We were each supposed to bring a poem, and most did, even one of the absentees.
Poems were a nonsense poem by CJ Dennis (‘Triantiwontigongolope’), a poem about climate change (that was me – Kit Kelen’s ‘Parable’), a Thomas Hardy (‘Heredity’), a Robert Frost (‘A Time to Talk’), a poem from Claudia Rankine’s Just Us (‘sound and fury’), and two poems of Australian patriotism that couldn’t have been more different (Sara Mansour’s ‘My Australia‘ – link to her performing it on YouTube – and a poem whose name and creator I don’t remember celebrating the lump in the throat brought on by, for example, Anzac Day). This little reading, including by two people who said they felt awkward reading poetry aloud, left us reeling.
And that was a wrap for the Book Group for 2022.
* Currently when blogging about books I take a closer look, arbitrarily, at page 75 – moving on to page 76 at my next birthday if the idea works well enough.