The Promise of Light

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Night over Day over Night (1988), Calm at Sunset, Calm at Dawn (1989), and In the Blue Light of African Dreams (1990), Paul Watkins’ previous novels, are adventure stories like The Promise of Light, most of which takes place in County Clare in Ireland during the Irish Rebellion in 1921. The novel shows how its main character, Benjamin Sheridan, an Irish American, having gone to Ireland to find his biological father, becomes, willy-nilly, a fighter on the Irish side in the Irish Rebellion.

The novel begins as Benjamin returns by ferry from the Rhode Island mainland to Jamestown Island, his home. A recent university graduate, he has that day been offered a job in a bank. This means that he will be able to leave his father Arthur Sheridan’s house, as his father wishes. That he will be on his own now turns out to have a fuller meaning than he thinks.

A huge dock fire greets him. The ferryman Monahan’s reputation rests on his operating the ferry under conditions as destructive as the fire, and this makes him seem a kind of Charon, ferrying souls to the land of the dead. Benjamin’s father, the fife chief on Jamestown Island, is badly injured by an explosion during the fire and dies from a transfusion of Benjamin’s blood. Dr. Melville, who carries out the transfusion, tells Benjamin that Sheridan could not have been his real father. (Later, Benjamin finds out that Mae Sheridan, already dead, is not his real mother either.)

The quest at the heart of this adventure story now appears: Benjamin feels compelled to search out his real father, and to do this, he must travel to Ireland, embroiled though it is in the Black-and-Tan War. In the parlance of modern literature, Benjamin is searching for his own identity, which means that he must uncover the past he does not know and discard the past he does know.

Benjamin remembers that he played with his mother’s clothespins when he was a child; after her death, though, it was his father, who saved them and “the scarf with her perfume distant and wound into the threads” in order to evoke his intimacy with her in a way that Benjamin cannot. It is as though Benjamin never knew her. The house itself, defined by the smells and habits of Arthur Sheridan, becomes, after his death, alien to Benjamin.

Among his friends, Bosley (now a mailman), with whom he learned to shoot (which foreshadows his role in the Irish Rebellion), has already withdrawn from him because Benjamin went to university and is leaving the island. Also, as the rich Clarissa Maxwell from the mainland has rejected his love for her, Benjamin puts aside his friendship with her brother Harley, turns down their mother’s offer of a job looking after her son’s money, and finally lets his attraction to Clarissa sink to the bottom of his memory. His ties to the familiar severed, Benjamin sails to Ireland to scatter his substitute father’s ashes and uncover his real father’s identity.

Yet Benjamin has more to discard. His assumptions and expectations are illusions. He finds out that the freighter he is on, the Madrigal, is carrying guns to the Irish rebels. He is supposed to get off the ship in Galway and meet a contact, Justin Fuller. The ship, however, lets him-and the guns—off at Lahinch, where British soldiers (Tans) sink the ship. Benjamin and what is left of the guns are spirited away by the Irish Republican Army. Not only is Benjamin’s plan to put up posters and pay bribes to find out who his real parents are scrapped, but Justin Fuller is dead—executed by the British. Benjamin even loses the suit and suitcase he thought he needed on his journey.

The lies that Benjamin grew up with had kept him from unhappiness; the lies he goes along with now keep him alive. Having made friends with a dishwasher, Harry Crow, and a half- lunatic crab fisherman, Tarbox, both rebels, Benjamin dresses in the rough clothes of the locals and stays in the house of an old man, Guthrie, posing as his nephew from America. The Irish accept Benjamin because Arthur Sheridan was their crony. They are consummate deceivers. They ply their trades by day and fight their war by night; they know how to hide their doings from informers such as McGarrity, the cook at the hotel in Lahinch. When the police question Guthrie, he shows them letters from his actual nephew. The stamps are American, the handwriting is all but illegible, and Guthrie drives the police away with his nonstop talking.

Benjamin knows that he cannot hide from the enemy forever. The...

(The entire section is 1868 words.)