Some stories are decades in the making and turn out to be worth the wait. "Orangutan," Colin Broderick’s remarkable new memoir is a case in point. Charting 20 years from his arrival in New York in the late 1980’s through the spectacular misadventures that finally led to his unlikely emergence as an author, Broderick’s new book is a marvel of style and substance.
Written in terse, you-are-there prose that crackles with energy throughout, the Sixmilecross, County Tyrone raised author spares everyone except himself in the telling of his often terrifying but always gripping journey.
On the surface Orangutan reads like a typical Irish emigrants tale: Broderick arrives in New York in his early 20’s where he finds his way to McLean Avenue in the Bronx and before you can say welcome to the Sates lad he’s working as a carpenter (between the frequent bouts of ending up flat on his back in a drunken stupor in the back of the local pubs).
What happens to him next is not so typical. Privately, between the epic benders that become more and more frequent in his free wheeling life, Broderick commits himself to the lonely task of becoming a writer.
For a man of his background and position it’s an unexpected development and so he keeps his ambition mostly to himself. But when his girlfriend unexpectedly buys him a typewriter the symbolism, and her touching belief in his abilities, makes him weep with gratitude.
Some writers are born, others stumble into it, and some are called; interestingly Broderick represents all three of these conditions at various points in his off-kilter life. As his addiction to booze, drugs and fast times intensifies his focus often does too.
That makes him marvelous company but it also makes him unpredictable. At times in his four-alarm fire of a life it’s his own shock at his behavior and his desire to make good on his own promise that prevents those closest to him from ever cutting him off completely.
Some writers choose to shimmy down to the bottom of the abyss to grapple with the darkest parts of their own nature. The orangutan in the title is what Broderick calls the most bestial part of himself, the one that he only accesses by getting into the worst possible scrapes. Drunken driving, car crashes, prison sentences, they’re all here.
Part of what makes Broderick’s book so compelling (and at times, so heartbreaking) is that he allows himself to fall further and more completely than anyone you’re ever likely to encounter. He knows he has real talent but he lacks the self-esteem to focus or direct it toward a positive change in his own circumstances. That’s part of why this book has taken so long to appear; its author had to struggle mightily for years to believe in his own creation, and then in himself.
Irish or not, the tale also references many familiar events and locations that have shaped New York over the last two decades. Broderick knows the city, it’s sights, sounds and smells as though he were native born. He also knows many of the major Irish players in New York and they’re all here. But as ever, he reserves his harshest judgments for himself.
During his lost years between writing a short run but successful play and starting out on the path that finally led to this book Broderick travelled three continents, was stabbed, beaten, sometimes left for dead, repeatedly hospitalized for his injuries and finally imprisoned for his second DWI offense.
It was love, of all things, that brought him back to life. Just when you conclude he’s out for the count he meets his third wife Renata and her influence on him - and his own determination to save himself - finally work the miracle that he’d sought for 20 years. As their relationship deepens he begins work on the memoir that will make his reputation.
Some people run away from the things that will save them, some fail to recognize them when they arrive; like many people Broderick spent years searching for someone or something to transform him and his circumstances, but ultimately he struck gold by finding the person who simply allowed the best parts of himself to emerge. He finally found somebody he wanted, he writes, more than he wanted a drink.
His book is part grail quest, part cautionary tale and part rollicking Irish emigrant’s adventure story. What makes it remarkable is that he manages to snatch a victory out of near impossible odds. This book is written in blood, it deserves to become a classic.
Orangutan by Colin Broderick, Three Rivers Press, $14.00. Broderick will read from Orangutan at 7 P.M. at Barnes & Noble, 97 Warren Street, Tribeca New York on January 14.
Original Irish Jack-o-Lanterns were truly terrifying and made of turnips