By next month, Donna Tartt’s novel "The Goldfinch" will have spent an entire year on The New York Times best-seller list. It is, without question, the big book of the year, gaining many fans not to mention a handful of influential enemies.
None of the negativity mattered, as Tartt’s book went on to win the Pulitzer Prize and sell like mad, even though it is a brick of a book, weighing in at close to 800 pages.
Given its lusty sales, you can bet a good number of Americans (including me) made "The Goldfinch" their beach read for the summer.
What they experienced was a heck of a good read, despite what a few haters said in a recent Vanity Fair article. And New Yorker critic James Wood groused, “I think that the rapture with which [The Goldfinch] has been received is further proof of the infantilization of our literary culture: a world in which adults go around reading 'Harry Potter.'”
I ultimately found "The Goldfinch" very absorbing, even though there’s a bit of truth to the Vanity Fair article’s assertion that the book is “stuffed with relentless, far-fetched plotting; cloying stock characters; and an overwrought message tacked on at the end as a plea for seriousness.”
What really jumped out at me, however, was Tartt’s heavy use of Irish characters, who ranged from good, bad and ugly to downright bizarre.
"The Goldfinch" revolves around Theodore Decker, a New York City boy who loses his mother tragically. Sent off to live with his father, Theo drifts into a drug and booze-fueled friendship with a Russian immigrant named Boris, who becomes entangled in a conflict Theo has involving the famous painting that lends "The Goldfinch" its title.
Tartt’s use of Irishness begins innocently enough. We learn Theo’s saintly mother is “half Irish, half Cherokee.”
Later, Theo works with a number of “moving-and-storage guys” from the outer boroughs, and Tartt’s narrator (Theo) describes them 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).”
Nothing too bad here, really. True, the implication is that these guys are a little too dumb or slow for civil service work.
Oh well. You can’t deny the fact that the New York Irish dominated those jobs for decades. Even one of Tartt’s characters, describing someone who “looks like [an] ex-cop,” adds that one of the movers agreed.
“Mike thinks this – Irish, they know from cops.”
Tartt even gets a little piece of neighborhood history correct, noting that Inwood in north Manhattan used to be home to large numbers of Irish Americans.
But that’s where things get a little troubling. It starts with one of the moving and storage guys, when he misses a day of work.
“I bet he is home in Inwood with a hangover and a black eye,” a character laments.
Hmm. The Irish guy must have gotten into a drunken brawl, huh? Well, perhaps you can argue that Tartt is trying to expose some lingering stereotypes about Irish Americans.
But then there’s this description from Theo.
An apartment building is “one of the great, old white-glove buildings on Park” where “the doormen were still mostly Irish.” The one Theo encounters on this particular occasion is “dead-pale and poorly shaven, often a bit slow on the draw.”
Take a wild guess why. As Tartt writes: “Though he was a likable guy…he was known around the building for having a drinking problem.”
Of all the ethnic groups in New York and of all the character flaws to choose from, Tartt pairs up an Irishman with a drinking problem? If it’s not offensive it’s definitely insensitive and lazy.
Meanwhile, Tartt wanders off into just plain weird territory when one character is said to have an “Irish laugh – harsh and surprised at itself.” Which is at least better than the mysterious stranger later described as having an “Irish torso.” How a person’s mid-section can be particularly Hibernian is a mystery to me.
But hey, give Tartt credit. Neither the laugh nor the torso were not connected in any way to alcohol.
Contact “Sidewalks” at tdeignan.blogspot.com.