The World of Tomorrowby Brendan MathewsLittle, Brown, 2017It isn't long, when reading Brendan Mathew's big, ambitious debut novel The World of Tomorrow, before one of his Irish characters blurts out the word “Jaysus.” This is always a testing moment. It can – indeed, it will – either be the dinner-chat-halting bell note of Irish blackface or an early, daring rhetorical knight-fork on the part of a confident author. The great relief of The World of Tomorrow is how regularly it skirts the disaster of condescension that's always at risk once the “Jaysus” bell has sounded.The book tells the story of the Dempsey brothers, Francis, Michael, and Martin, and finds them in very difference circumstances when the narrative begins: it's 1939 Ireland, and Francis is serving a prison sentence for trafficking in contraband books (“as well as in other luxuries proscribed by the tariff-hungry, priest-fearing politicians of the fledgling Republic of Ireland”), Michael is in seminary, and Martin is thousands of miles away living the new life he's fashioned for himself as a working musician in New York. When the Dempseys' father dies, Francis and Michael are released to attend his funeral, furloughed and expected to return – but instead, they run. In the course of enacting a half-baked plan to flee to Martin in America, Francis and Michael not only steal money from the IRA but also barely survive an explosion that leaves Michael deaf and mentally shattered, struggling, tormented by “the Noise” and remembering their little town only in discordant flashes:
Ballyrath. He had been a boy there, and he had left home for the seminary with its gray stone and gaudy stained glass, its black cassocks and narrow cots. The long tables, the gloopy eggs and gristly rashers of the morning meal. He could smell the sugared fumes rising from the censer during the consecration, could feel the pages of his Augustine and Aquinas; each leaf crackled when turned, as if the books had been waterlogged and poorly dried. All of this had bloomed suddenly in his head, but none of it explained how he had arrived here, or where he was.
Michael's inner torment aside, the two brothers seem well set up; they have ample money and a clean slate in a prewar Manhattan bursting with life. Mathews throws himself into the familiar fictional task of bringing that world to life, and here he's less successful in avoiding the cliches that all but come with the territory: we get Mob bosses, sheltered heiresses yearning to breathe free, faded, cabbage-stewing housewives, the glittering Harlem nightlife, and all the other usual suspects, and although they're all rendered with grace and energy, not a one of them ever does anything you won't expect them to do if you've taken the precaution of reading Dashiell Hammett.But the dynamic between the Dempsey brothers saves even the novel's most hackneyed sequences. Tragic, broken Michael, intense, conflicted Martin, and most of all crass, charismatic Francis, the book's most memorable character and real star. He's a talker, a braggart, a compulsive game-player and boundary-pusher, a smart young man who's not nearly as smart as he thinks he is, the kind of person who practices his jokes in the mirror without ever realizing that they're not funny. I won't be the only reader to grow impatient waiting for the book's multi-focus narration to swing back around to Francis, despite the unsavory ways he can combine bluster and callousness, or care and contempt, or, in his reunion scene with Martin, deceit and sanctimony:
“Did he suffer?” [Martin asks, of their dead father]“Now, that's a big question, isn't it?”“You know what I mean. Did he linger?”“No one knows. One of the neighbors found him, facedown in the garden. Said it looked like he'd been struck by a bolt from the blue.”Martin tried to conjure an image of his father's face, but what he got was faded and ragged around the edges, like a photograph left in the rain. He foundered for something to say, “When did it happen?”“It's been two weeks,” Francis said.“Two weeks! And you're only telling me now? You couldn't have sent a telegram – a letter, even?”“I thought you should hear this in person, from someone who shares your blood.”“You came all this way to tell me Da is dead?”“Would you've rather gotten the news alone, with nothing but a torn envelope in front of you? We're family. That's what family does for family.”
In this as in almost all passages, the laziness (“bolt from the blue”) is counter-balanced or even redeemed by the genuinely good flourishes (“nothing but a torn envelope in front of you”); there's strong prose throughout The World of Tomorrow, more pious than it is playful but enormously readable in either case. And it all builds to a tight-focus climax so tense and unpredictable that it's certainly worth a “Jaysus” or two. Or three.