A fine Irish horse opera

Red Sky in Morning
Paul Lynch
Quercus, £12.99

Paul Lynch’s debut novel is a highly accomplished literary cowboy story. Though half of it is set in Donegal in the 1830s, it is a horse opera nonetheless.

Coll Coyle is to be evicted with his child and pregnant wife for a reason we do not learn until a stray line in the last couple of pages. Coyle confronts the landlord, Hamilton, who is on horseback and tries to reason with him. Coyle knocks Hamilton from the horse setting off a chain of events that sees Coyle flee to Philadelphia pursued by Hamilton’s man, the philosophical and psychotic Faller.

There is an elemental quality to the writing where characters, the dead and the living, find themselves caught up in the almost animate vagaries of the weather and the earth around them. A muscular and opulent language is used to give a highly sensual quality to the places where the story unfolds. A cinematic quality is found in moments like the first fall of rain after days of back-breaking work by parched railway workers in Philadelphia.

Earlier there is a creeping malevolence to the earth as Hamilton’s corpse is stuck into a bog.

"A carrion crow flew down solitary from the sky, black-dressed to sit upon the tree. It watched indifferent to the spectacle, took survey of the speechless landscape and cawed a single note of sermon before it cocked its head and took wing. … Dead eyes spun then sunk into the dark shroud of water. He gave it a little nudge with his leg and watched the dome of the corpse’s head shine faintly before it faded into the void of water." The novel is ripe with this kind of spookily vivid writing.

The story itself is gripping too, for the most part. Faller is reminiscent of a lot of the darker, deadlier cowboys on the trail, in his blood-curdling pursuit of Coyle. It is hard not to think of Gene Hackman’s riposte after kicking Richard Harris to within an inch of his life in Unforgiven; when it is put to Hackman that Harris is an innocent man, he replies, "Innocent of what?".

Faller has a similar scene where a sidekick remonstrates with him about the treatment meted out to someone who "done nothing". Faller — almost a little too archly — replies, "Everybody’s done something … It’s just a case of who decides."

Here and there, Lynch may be guilty of over-egging it a little but these are not major issues with a very stylishly written book which takes the Irish novel into a quite a different genre. The book that comes to mind repeatedly in reading Red Sky in Morning is Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men. In fairness to Lynch, his book is no pale comparison and stands on its own as a fine work.