There's real pleasure to be had in good writing in terrible times.
That's because the best books are not a retreat from the world and reality but rather a reminder of what makes the world and reality so mysterious.
Few Irish writers seem as star-crossed as Rob Doyle. In "Threshold," his gorgeous and often wildly funny new book, he often crosses the thin line between reality and dreams in all night magic mushroom benders that are his go-to escape from middle-class philistinism and drudgery.
Doyle seems mystified by almost everything he encounters and it's that juxtaposition of the sublime and the silly, and his increasing comfort with it, that makes him so uniquely Irish.
He's also well aware of the wide-eyed pub bores who want to tell you about their divine insights on drugs. Doyle instead keeps his celestial insights to himself but he lets you see supremely how easy it is to pass from one world into another, with the wisdom implicit rather than explicit.
Nothing is as strange as all the things we take for granted, he discovers. The long-forgotten statue of the Duke Of Wellington in Dublin's Phoenix Park is one example. He recalls it like this, “that towering imperialistic monolith proclaiming battles won and enemies vanquished, with the listed names of faraway cities up each side - a phallic Ozymandias declaring the grandeur of a dissolved empire...”
In "Threshold" Doyle writes with the precision and poignancy of a born writer, his lighthouse gaze missing nothing at all. He's often very funny too, the result of his alienation from most places and people, including himself.
"Threshold" is as drunk on ideas as it is on drugs. It's a memoir of sorts but it's also a meditation, a series of holiday snaps of the places he's been and the people he has been in them. Context creates complications. In San Francisco, his love affair with America and its idea of itself comes to a symphonic end.
Having downed enough magic mushrooms to keep three people tripping for an entire night he writes: “As I gradually grew calmer and gained a hold on my fears, intense but more benign emotions flooded me. I had a vision of twenty-first-century America as a wasteland of broken, defeated people, a sorrowing mass of human wreckage and unanswered prayers.”
“I knew then that I could not live there permanently, a possibility I had been strongly considering. By the time I finally came down from the hill, it felt like a very long time had passed. In reality, it was about six hours. The trip was distressing, yet not one I regretted having.”
In Sicily, he finds work as a soon to be sexually frustrated English language tutor, in a place where everyone his age has already moved north to Italy. Soon though he takes the measure of the place, makes friends and finds his footing. By the end of the summer, he's quietly transformed. Sitting under the shade of a tree he hears the church bells strike noon.
“Having no thoughts in my head, my senses heightened by fatigue, I heard with pellucid clarity their chiming and resounding, each nuance of tone and oscillation, as if the bells were ringing inside my mind as if I were the campanile.
“The bells rang on and on, bounding through the alleys and across the piazza, over the rooftops and the sea air. I thought of the words from Plato that Matt had quoted as we stood before the temple in Segesta, stunned by sky and magnificence and hallucination: “All in all, nothing human is worth taking very seriously; nevertheless…”
"Threshold" is about inhabiting the space between the mundane and the sublime and Doyle's quest to understand and occasionally live in magic. Transcendence can certainly be found in things like magic mushrooms he realizes, but it also be found in love and language, which are themselves gateways and thresholds. This marvelous book knows that and leads us toward them.
Threshold, by Rob Doyle, Bloomsbury, $26.00.