WITH this collection of 13 loosely-linked short stories, author John MacKenna takes his readers into deep territory — the fundamental narrative of Christian doctrine, and uses it to explore the human condition.
Loss and regret are the common themes, with the title story introducing us to the ‘Captain’, a messiah-like figure who may or may not have miraculous powers, and whose influence over his followers reaches from rural north America, through the deserts of Palestine, to the suburbs of Ireland.
After the Captain’s murder by the forces of the State, his apostles scatter, left alone to make sense of their world and to cope with life’s vicissitudes, and, if possible, to find peace.
MacKenna is a master of subtlety, some of the stories’ narrators are named, others not.
We meet Jude, Miriam, and a wheelchair-bound character called Laz who may have been raised from the dead, but who, admits: “Dead was all I ever wanted to be.”
Despite the religious allusions, the viewpoint remains humanist and contemporary.
Years after his death, the Captain’s followers are left with little but their fears, or as MacKenna phrases it, they are ‘a bunch of shit-scared people’.
These are the strongest stories in Once We Sang Like Other Men — those that are down to earth, dealing with personal struggles.
There is emotional depth to Sacred Heart, an exceptional story where a father reads his diary entries to his young daughter and manages, in a sense, to come to terms, with the break-up of his relationship with her mother.
There are also lines of powerful lyrical prose from MacKenna — “he watches an old crow flail jadedly across the dull September sky’ — which remind us we are in the hands of an author who has won both the Irish Times First Fiction Award and the Hennessy Literary Prize, and has been compared to John McGahern.
In the moving story Resurrection, we encounter the grieving widow of a writer whose final written words suggest that somewhere there is also a grieving mistress, while at the wake his young son plays hide and seek with his father, waiting for him to reappear from the wooden box.
This story, above all, illustrates MacKenna’s mastery of the moving sentence, of emotionally-laden moments that leap out from the page.
The reader desperately wants the widow to find the ability to forgive, for her son to get what he wants and his father to be resurrected like Laz in the opening story, but this is not that kind of collection — life does not come with inbuilt simplicities.
Buy and Sell, one of the shorter stories in the collection, is one that has much to say about our need for belief systems.
It introduces Thaddeus, a former follower of the ‘Captain’ who, a quarter of a century later, looks back at the time with little more than confusion, reading with puzzlement the many books that have been written by historians and biographers about the ‘movement’, and wondering how they reached their conclusions: “Very little of what they wrote bore any resemblance to the things he remembered. He didn’t remember there ever being a philosophy as such.”
For Thaddeus, the sharpest memories come from an earlier, still-painful event in his childhood.
MacKenna’s writing is full of mystery, what is unsaid is as important as what is said, leaving much for the reader to interpret.
Ultimately, at the heart of this collection is the human condition — the need to believe in something greater than ourselves, to somehow make life less ordinary.
If there is a philosophical theme running through these pages, it is that we are on our own, coping as best we can with our mistakes, while the big questions remain unanswered.