The Red Men

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

Patrick McGinley’s sixth novel has much in common with its predecessors. As in Bogmail (1978; American edition, 1981) and The Trick of the Ga Bolga (1985), the setting is the austere and haunting landscape and shoreline of the author’s native county Donegal, Ireland. As in the case of all his previous novels, love and death appear as the inescapable enigmas of being in the world. And as usual, The Red Men is rich in vocabulary, in the particularities of daily life, and in various surprising areas of arcane lore such as Islamic ceramics, boating skills, and geology—though it must be said that in this novel the author is less indulgent toward his taste for recondite areas of expertise.

The title refers to two sets of brothers. The narrative deals with the fate of the younger of these two, the sons of autocratic Anthony “Gulban” Heron, but there is a precedent for their fate—namely, the material success that four of their family avatars achieved as entrepreneurs in the United States. Gulban is the heir of the original Red Men, not in material terms, but in terms of the spirit of tenacity, vigilance, and commitment which characterized their achievements. Gulban’s challenge to his heirs is intended to discover if they can exemplify the same spirit. On his seventy-seventh birthday, he endows each of his sons with the sum of ten thousand pounds, a material embodiment of the “talent” which he believes they possess. Whoever makes the most impressive use of his sum will inherit the remainder of Gulban’s treasure—the House of Heron hotel, the village store, and more besides. (Gulban’s strange nickname derives from one of his sons’ childish mispronunciation of Gulbenkian, the name of a millionaire family, a sobriquet jokingly applied to Gulban by another of his sons.)

The day on which the bequest takes place is named by Gulban “The Day of the Talents,” and there is an obvious correspondence between Gulban’s scheme and the parable of the talents in the New Testament. The correspondence is all the more unmistakable given the Jehovah-like power ascribed to Gulban by his children, by the fact that his children are obviously the elect of the locality, and by the numerous allusions to Christian doctrine, the Bible, and the rituals of the Roman Catholic Church. These allusions are given a due weight of seriousness when offered by Father Bosco, while in the mouth of brother Joey they are scandalously flavored by satire. Early in the proceedings there is an explicit denial in the text that Gulban should be thought of as God, a measure aimed partly to emphasize the novel’s agnostic undercurrent and partly to inhibit the inevitably schematic reading of action and plot which parable demands. Nevertheless, Gulban’s power to control the lives of his children by means of setting them a certain specific though enigmatic task—namely, to establish a purpose in their lives which satisfies his intentions for them—makes it difficult for the reader to overlook the spiritual, if not necessarily Christian, dimension of The Red Men.

Of the four brothers, Jack is the one most likely to succeed. Not only does he possess his father’s approval, but also he is credited with being the embodiment of that energetic commitment to material life which characterizes the original Red Men, though perhaps his general self-possession and grasp of material reality lead him to treat women in an unnecessarily exploitative manner.

On the other hand, Jack is the only one of the four brothers who is not red-haired. This detail has, like much of the matter in The Red Men and in McGinley’s work generally, two aspects. On the novel’s narrative level, it is the basis for the succession of abrupt and surprising revelations that come at the end of the novel. On the conceptual level, it suggests that there is nothing sacrosanct about redness as such, and that Gulban’s use of the term the Red Men is a piece of self-glorifying mythology that makes his outlook and the designs on his children which the outlook informs an arbitrary construct. As is frequently remarked in the course of his sons’ negotiation of the challenge, Gulban does not have to answer to anybody. It is interesting to note, in addition, how the conceptual and the narrative aspects dovetail in the rush of revelations at the end, though the arbitrariness of the conclusion is dramatically anticlimactic and not particularly intellectually satisfying.

In contrast to Jack, the three red-haired brothers lack drive and direction. Father Bosco’s respect for his priestly calling prompts him to distance himself at first from his father’s business, and he can only comply when he has found a manner which he believes will make God and Mammon compatible. In contrast to Bosco, Cookie and Joey...

(The entire section is 1974 words.)