PETER Murphy’s Shall We Gather at the River is a novel in full spate, a torrent of ideas bursting its banks with every turn of the page.
“For me the great under-trumpeted element in modern Irish fiction is imagination,” says Murphy.
“We talk about craft, we talk about realism and social realism, we talk about humanity and the pressing issues of the day. But for me imagination is supreme above all of them. It just comes from when I was a kid, walking home from school. I didn’t live in the real world. One day [Enniscorthy] would be a Martian colony, the next a dystopian Bladerunner-type landscape — whatever I was playing at that day. And that really never left me.”
Set in ‘a mythic space’ that strongly resembles his native Wexford, the novel is Murphy’s second offering. His debut, John the Revelator (2009), was also set in Wexford, although not for reasons of geographical familiarity.
“There’s something about the prime elements of the area,” he says with a grin, “there’s a fair old mythical bang off it. There’s something coming off it that’s quite extraordinary.”
The new novel tells the story of Enoch O’Reilly, a charismatic evangelical preacher whose gospel is more influenced by Elvis Presley than Jesus Christ. Manning the graveyard shift at the local radio station, Enoch broadcasts his message to a congregation devastated by the phenomenon of cluster suicide, as nine people slip beneath the waters of the River Rua.
The idea for the novel was sparked by a similar event over a decade ago.
“There was a series of six or seven suicides in the county of Wexford in the winter of 2002,” says Murphy. “I was living in Dublin when it happened but it just haunted me, because it was my backyard, so to speak. I went down to visit at the time and the Slaney was swollen and brown from muck, it looked like blood. It was just too biblical for comfort. And there seemed to be — understandably — this silence about it all. Almost as if people were afraid to speak about it in case it would trigger more. It was a strange and eerie thing, this hushed air, the not speaking of it.”
Shortly after publishing John the Revelator, Murphy interviewed James Dean Bradfield and Nicky Wire from the Manic Street Preachers, and the conversation turned to the apparent suicide of band member Richie Edwards, who disappeared without trace in 1995.
“I told them about what had happened in Enniscorthy, and it had been brewing anyway, but straight away Nicky said: ‘That’s a novel’.
“I moved it back to 1984 and fictionalised all the towns and names and scenarios, because I didn’t want the responsibility of running into people around Enniscorthy having written a book that was going to tear open a wound.”
Enoch O’Reilly makes for a fascinating character, one part Old Testament prophet to two parts daemonic succubus feasting on the misery of others.
“I’d be lying if I didn’t name-check Alison O’Connor’s book about Fr Sean Fortune,” says Murphy, “and the sheer hucksterish, feral cunning of how he wove this spell on a tiny community on a remote part of the southeast.”
A repulsive character, then, but one with a seductive voice that is influenced equally by the Southern gothic of Flannery O’Connery, the raw rock ‘n’ roll of Jerry Lee Lewis and the persuasive power of itinerant evangelical preachers.
“My understanding of biblical language came from rock ‘n’ roll,” he says, “from Patti Smith and Johnny Cash, and Nick Cave and U2, and gospel. Nick Tosch wrote an amazing biography of Jerry Lee Lewis, written in language that could easily have been Faulkner or from the Old Testament, and it had the balls to address a piece-of-trash, pop culture figure in very heightened, grand Southern biblical language. Jinx Lennon gave me a CD box-set called Goodbye Babylon, which is a collection of sermons from the Southern states in the 1920s. Their mastery of timing and call-and-response and drama and how to shape a sermon to bring it home.”
If the tone of the novel resonates with Americana, Fionn MacCumhail, Oisín and the Salmon of Knowledge are only some of the Irish mythological elements Murphy deploys.
“I remember in 1999 watching Iggy Pop when he played Dublin,” he says, “which was quite a privileged gig to be at, it was up-close and personal. I was looking at Iggy and thinking about Thomas Kinsella’s description of Cuchulainn’s warp-spasm in The Táin. And I was thinking, ‘That’s punk rock, it’s Iggy Pop. It’s exactly the same archetype’. It was two things that were previously irreconcilable coming together in some fashion.”
Despite its plethora of concepts and its philosophical enquiring, the novel has a very personal dimension for Murphy. The writing proved a cathartic experience during a very difficult period in his life.
“The book was written during an entire middle-aged bottleneck for me,” he acknowledges. “I had turned 40, my mother died, I instigated divorce proceedings and separated from my wife and kids, and went through a depression. Thankfully not a chemical depression, just a plain old regular too-much-shit-happening kinda depression. But in the worst of it, I did find myself walking the roads a lot, babbling. I was living alone in a little house outside of town and there was a stream at the back of the house, so the last thing I heard every night was its babble. A beautiful sound. And a lot of the book’s symbology comes from taking what are beautiful pastoral images and twisting them so that they’re dark, so that they may be eerie or even evil.”
That ‘twisting’ involves re-imagining the River Slaney as the fictional River Rua so that, symbolically, a life-giving river becomes a river of death, luring the unwary to their doom.
“We lived next to a farm for a couple of years when I was growing up,” says Murphy, “and my experiences were of wandering around the farm with the family and seeing the reality of how farmers work. There was death, decay, danger, the bull in the three-cornered field, the slurry pit — it’s not exactly your rustic paradise. So I suppose it’s innate to see the world that way, given the way I grew up.”
The ‘twisting’ also applies to Enoch O’Reilly, a man modelled on the conventions of a traditional Man of God but one seen through a glass, darkly. While Murphy acknowledges the depredations of Fr Sean Fortune, the novel is by no means an exercise in ‘throwing the baby Jesus out with the bath water’.
“I don’t lament that the scales have fallen from our eyes in terms of us viewing the Church’s machinery as a mechanism for social control,” he says.
“That had to happen. At the same time I don’t want to see that become a means of killing all magic. For me, the stuff that is most vital about Christianity, about Catholicism, is the symbolism, the stories, the language — everything we love in music and art and books. I mean, the Stations of the Cross are quite gruesome, but they’re very beautiful at the same time. We like Johnny Cash for a reason, and the reason is that he adopted the grandeur and the power of that language. We’re kidding ourselves if we don’t admit that we really get a hit off that stuff.”
Ultimately, Shall We Gather at the River is a novel about a man in thrall to a dark power that he does not fully understand. Whether that man is Enoch O’Reilly or Peter Murphy is left to the reader to decide.
“People tend to think that you pick a subject to write about,” says Murphy with a philosophical shrug, “but you don’t, not really. You just have whatever is given to you.”