What's the deal with summer beach reads and bad Irish American characters?
Two years ago, the big book of the summer was Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. The book went on to sell like hotcakes and even win the Pulitzer Prize.
But there was a problem with the book. Many of the Irish American characters did not come off very well.
There were the moving company workers whom Thartt’s narrator describes this way: “Most of them were New York City Irish, lumbering, good-natured guys who hadn’t quite made it into the police force or fire department – Mike, Sean Patrick, Little Frank (who was not little at all [and was] the size of a refrigerator).”
One is later described as likely at home in the historically Irish Manhattan neighborhood of Inwood “with a hangover and a black eye.”
Then there is the apartment building where “the doormen were still mostly Irish.” One of them, Tartt writes “was a likable guy” but “he was known around the building for having a drinking problem.”
Given what is going on in the world today, none of this necessarily amounts to a major problem. But given the effort many writers put into avoiding stereotypes, this seems like quite a lapse.
Which brings us to one of the more popular beach reads of this year. The book is entitled Before the Fall and has been on The New York Times bestseller list since it was released last year.
I picked it up because the author, Noah Hawley, is not only a best-selling author but he is the creative force behind the FX network drama Fargo, which for my money is one of the best shows on television.
First things first, Before the Fall is a fine read. The plot revolves around a plane crash, the rich folks who perished and the unlikely man and child who survived the tragedy, only to get caught up in the media circus in the crash’s aftermath.
The novel’s conclusion is a little bit of a dud, but overall Hawley does a fine job capturing the way people live and the way the media creates a story when the real one may not quite be interesting enough.
One more thing: At least Hawley’s Irish characters aren’t drunks.
Oh, there is a reference at one airport to “working class men with Massachusetts accents who drink green beer on St. Patrick’s Day and eat hot dogs on July 4th.”
Sure, this is a little condescending. But the problems that emerge with the Irish American characters in Before the Fall are a little more political.
Take the agent from the FBI who is called in to investigate the plane crash. His name is O’Brien, which is fitting because federal law enforcement was traditionally a path to success for ambitious Irish Catholics. (See the work of historian Richard Gid Powers for more on this.)
The trouble here is that O’Brien comes off like a complete jerk. He is paranoid and authoritarian. The survivor of the plane crash happens to be an artist.
So what does O’Brien want to do? He wants to seize the artist’s paintings because they may prove to be evidence that the artist had something to do with causing the plane crash. He’s also a creep who wants to snoop into the artist’s personal life because, again, it may reveal some evidence.
There’s not much mystery here. The reader is pretty clear that the artist is innocent and that O’Brien is a nasty fellow.
The problem is that Hawley is relying on a rather tired stereotype about law enforcement types in general and Irish Americans in particular.
Want more? The bad guy in the book turns out to be a blustery TV news personality named Bill Cunningham. Not necessarily Irish, true, but quite quickly -- in a book with numerous characters based on real life figures -- it becomes clear that Cunningham is modeled on possibly the most famous Irish American blowhard in the media world, Bill O’Reilly.
Again, there’s no need to play the anti-Irish card here. That’s probably too strong. There is, in fact, an Irish-born character in Before the Fall who comes across as normal, multi-dimensional, even interesting.
Too bad you can’t say the same thing about the book’s Irish American characters.