Review of Books



Dear Mrs. Fitzsimmons: Tales of Redemption from an Irish Mailbox

    A couple of years ago, comedian Greg Fitzsimmons, known to me as Greg Fitz or Fitz, was honored as one of Irish America’s Top 100 and we roped him in to perform. He brought the house down with his stories of growing up in an Irish household where a sense of humor was not only highly valued, it was a necessary tool for survival.
    Fitz grew up in Tarrytown, New York and started out in stand-up as a student at Boston University doing the rounds of the clubs in Boston. He looks like a cross between Tim Conway (the much underappreciated genius of The Carol Burnett Show) and Bob Newhart, both of whom have Irish roots, and he has the comic timing of both, with the irreverence and edginess of George Carlin, another Irish-American great, thrown in.
    I knew Fitz was funny but I didn’t know he could write, so it took me longer to get around to reading his memoir than it should have.
    Fitz can write (in the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that he’s a friend of a dear friend). At just 44, he may seem a bit young to write a memoir, but when he came across a box of notes from teachers that his mother had kept, including one from a Kindergarten teacher complaining that he didn’t know “how to wiggle,” a flood of memories came back and an idea for a book was born.
    The notes and letters act as a linking thread in Dear Mrs. Fitzsimmons: Tales of Redemption from an Irish Mailbox, but the writing in between the notes has a purity and directness that is elegant, and of course, since it’s Greg Fitz we are talking about here, a good dose of bawdy. One gets the impression that every insult or injury is remembered, but he gives equal time to  people he sinned against.
    In addition to teachers complaining about Greg’s inability to pay attention, we learn that Fitz’s Irish family includes cousins and aunts who are “ball busters,” and an uncle Jimmy who is a down-and-out but who gives him lots of great books to read about the Bible and American history. And about his early days breaking into the business when he figured out how not to let the tough, largely Boston Irish, audiences break him down. And that’s the fun part. There is also the stuff that will gut you, like his early addiction to drugs and alcohol and how he decided to quit cold turkey when he bombed at a charity event because he was so stoned his timing was off. Most poignant is his coming to terms with his relationship with his father, a radio talk show personality, whom he adored, but who had his own addictions and a dark side.
    At the launch of this book, Greg signed a copy to me, “Thanks for honoring our people no matter how we act.”
    Comedienne Sarah Silverman describes Fitz as “Irish to the core. Despite himself, Greg Fitzsimmons has this bottomlessness oozing from his pores, and it’s raw, honest, and hilarious. This portrait of one comic’s life is funny, and true.” I can only concur.
    Watching Fitz perform on stage at Caroline’s, as I did recently, I realized that what makes him so engaging as a stand-up artist is the undercurrent of empathy and understanding of human nature. This sensitivity, which he uses so well in his stand-up routine, translates beautifully into this memoir.
    Dear Mrs. Fitzsimmons: Tales of Redemption from an Irish Mailbox deserves a standing ovation and months on the bestseller list.
    – Patricia Harty (210 pages / Simon & Schuster / $25)

Ghost Light
    There may be no finer Irish writer of historical fiction than Joseph O’Connor. Author of the equally beloved and acclaimed novels Star of the Sea (2003) and Redemption Falls (2007), O’Connor approaches his genre and the pages of Irish history with unsurpassed depth and, for this reader at least, the perfect amount of artistic liberty necessary for reaching the emotional – if not always factual –  truth of the past.
    In Ghost Light, O’Connor’s seventh novel, he turns his attention from emigration and the famine (the topics explored in his last two books) to the well-known but little documented relationship between the Irish playwright John Millington Synge (writer of The Playboy of the Western World and founder, with W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory, of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre) and the actress Molly Allgood (stage name Marie O’Neill). For various reasons, ranging from differences in class, religion and age to Synge’s failing health, their relationship was essentially doomed from the start. But in O’Connor’s rendering of 1907 Edwardian Dublin, the time they do spend together deeply affects Synge’s work and Molly’s life (it is said that the role of Playboy’s Pegeen Mike, which Allgood originated, was influenced largely by the time Synge spent with her).     
    Readers access these years in Dublin through the memories of a now older, poorer Molly, just getting by in a dark 1952 London. O’Connor portrays his protagonist with compassion and honesty throughout all her ruminations, which take place over the course of one day, as Molly slowly makes her way through London to a rare job opportunity: the part of an old Irish woman in a BBC Radio reading of Sean O’Casey’s The Silver Tassie. O’Connor makes unexpected shifts in narration, switching suddenly from addressing Molly in the second person to describing her in the third. Though initially somewhat disorienting, this choice is ultimately a powerful one, mirroring Molly’s alternating focus on her present circumstances and her deep nostalgia.
    In the “Acknowledgments and Caveat” section that follows the close of the novel, O’Connor freely and somewhat apologetically admits “most events in this book never happened at all.” He then adds that “certain biographers may want to beat me with a turf shovel.” It seems unlikely, though, that O’Connor will suffer the same fate as Old Mahon in Synge’s Playboy of the Western World. Rather, I believe that readers will be immediately drawn in by O’Connor’s rendering of this fascinating pair.
    – Sheila Langan (256 pages / Farrar, Straus and Giroux / $24)