James Carroll’s Mortal Friends is the latest in a seemingly endless series of novels about Irish-American political families who live in Boston. In the case of this book, however, the usual plot takes on a somewhat different hue in that the characters do not comprise a dynasty, but a small middle-class family. The main character, Coleman Brady, is also atypical. He is neither brilliant nor particularly capable. He is a man of broken, or at least wavering, illusions who toils in the day-to-day politics of Boston, assisting the more powerful and rich members of the Irish-American political milieu.
The characters of Mortal Friends are placed against the backdrop of actual historical occurrences, from the Irish rebellion through the early 1960’s. Carroll has done an excellent job of research and has made his characters minor participants in some of the major events of the twentieth century. However, he falters somewhat by making important figures from the recent past minor characters in a setting too recent for this type of treatment. For example, there are pages of dialogue among many of the major Democrats in the 1950’s and 1960’s, including Joseph P. and John F. Kennedy. As this book is not intended to be biographical or a dramatization of facts surrounding an important historical event, one wonders if the author has overstepped his bounds. The brief, chatty conversations among the characters and such people as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Jacqueline Kennedy do not really add anything to the book. In fact, since the reader knows for certain that these conversations could never have taken place, their appearance in the book is a distraction. Although they were, one might guess, placed in the book to give it more of a ring of believability, the fact that the reader is relatively familiar with these characters and knows that the dialogue is fictitious defeats the author’s purpose.
A good historical novel seems plausible, even to the informed reader, because he is willing to suspend his disbelief for the sake of a good, well-researched story. Irving Stone, for example, has made a long and lucrative career from this type of writing in such novels as The Agony and the Ecstasy and Lust for Life. Similarly, novels which have representative characters with totally fictitious names in a more contemporary setting can be believable because each reader will see similarities between the novel’s characters and the “real” people. A popular example of this would be Washington Behind Closed Doors by John Ehrlichman.
Unfortunately, neither of these formulas is apparent in the second half of Mortal Friends. In the initial passages, when Coleman is in Ireland, fighting in the rebellion, the historical background works well; these scenes are far enough removed to appear “unknown.” But, as time moves forward and Coleman and his son Collins are placed in a more contemporary setting, the shield of a less familiar past drops and the reader becomes less willing to accept the intermingling of fact and fiction.
Despite this flaw, however, the major characters in the novel are interesting. Carroll has included every stereotype that would fit into his historical setting without allowing them to become stereotyped. From the colorful mayor to the Mafia contact, there are many opportunities for the author to succumb to trite characterizations; but he rises above the temptations and creates generally realistic figures.
The central character is complex. The Irish patriot has been a protagonist in dozens of films and novels; his inner turmoils and thwarted quest for political freedom seem to provide authors with a strong pivotal point for a plot. Coleman Brady is no exception to this rule. Like the typical Irish protagonist, he is introspective and untrusting. He is also searching for something in addition to freedom, although it is never made clear what that something is. Coleman’s ambivalence does, at times, become tedious. His emotions seem to change from...
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