Most Mondays I meet my mate Aaron and we get shitfaced on cheap white wine. We either get drunk at my place or his, even though his flat is infinitely better than mine. We’re both in the process of writing a novel, so we mostly talk about that and the past. Two weeks ago we were sitting on Aaron’s balcony drinking wine and enjoying, yes enjoying a cigarette, when I started talking about my favourite book, A Goat’s Song by Irish author Dermot Healy. It’s a story about a tragic alcoholic’s destructive relationship with an actress from Dublin and his bleak, yet beautiful take on the world that eventually destroys everything around him.
I first read A Goat’s Song in ‘96 when I was unemployed in Ireland and spending most of my money on postcards and Guinness. It’s one of only a few books that had me hooked from the first sentence:
“The bad times were over at last. He stood on the new bridge that opened onto the Mullet and waited for Catherine to appear. In the side pocket of his jacket, folded into a notebook, he had her letter. Just when he’d given up hope it had arrived.”
And, from memory, I read the book in one sitting but I may be romanticising this because it’s 17 years since I read the book for the first time and nostalgia is the greatest storyteller of all.
Anyway, I was telling Aaron about this book and how I’d lost it a couple of years ago. Aaron stood up walked into the flat and returned with my copy of A Goat’s Song and placed it on the coffee table in front of me. I stared at the book for about ten seconds in an incomprehensible trance of euphoria and sadness before I picked it up and weighed it in my right hand. This was my original copy, the only possession I have left from that time, in fact, the only book out of some 800 I have left from that decade.
During the silent minutes after Aaron gave me back the book I felt like somebody had king-hit memories into the back of my head. Aaron had seen me like this once before and knew just to sit back and wait it out. I remembered the pub I’d read it in, the walk home, stuffing it in my backpack when I left Ireland, talking about it to hundreds of different people I met on my travels and finally arriving in Melbourne holding it in my hand as I walked through customs with about six different drugs talking shop in my bloodstream.
When a barrage of memories sweeps over you it’s hard not to pass out. It’s best to be silent and wait for it to pass. By the time it did pass I’d been crying for fifteen minutes and rubbing the cover of the book with both hands. I wasn’t even aware that I was crying but when I did, I did that thing so many men do when they cry; I apologised and cleared my throat. This is when Aaron spoke his words of wisdom, “Don’t worry mate you’ve got nothing to apologise for. It’s a fucking good book”.
While Aaron went for his midafternoon dump, I went through the book looking for the sentences she circled when we broke up. Quite a few years ago now I had a doomed relationship with a beautiful but highly strung woman from Brunswick. She read the book the day after we broke up and legend has it that she read it in one day too. However, she read it with a pen in one hand and a gallon of wine in the other. Every time she came across a sentence that reminded her of us, she circled it and wrote a comment in the margin. The book is riddled with these critiques, a graveyard of bleak and tragic words. Each sentence is perfect, even the circled sentences have artistry to them but, more importantly, the circles on the pages of the book accurately tracked our relationship.
Through my callousness and her emotional meltdown we’d effectively brought the characters to life and enabled them to step off the pages and enter the real world, our world, mirroring our own doomed relationship. And this is what great books can do to our reality; they captivate us with their mystery and we unconsciously bring them to life. And what this tells us, is that fiction is not necessarily tragic because of the author’s imagination but because of the universal truths that they convey through the narrative.
When I thought I’d lost the book I was upset for two reasons. One, it was my original copy of my favourite book and two, it had the circles drawn and words written by a broken hearted woman in an unfinished house in Brunswick. I suppose my point is that it’s not just the book, its narrative arc, protagonists or scene setting that makes a book great, it’s also about the people you care about who read the book too. Especially the ones who care enough to creatively and lovingly deface it with their own despair and trauma.
As I stumbled home from Aaron’s, feeling my feet disappear into the pavement, I thought about Jack and Elizabeth from A Goat’s Song and I thought about the woman from Brunswick and how it all feels so important at the time, all those words spoken late at night over drinks and the absolute finality of getting home to your flat and falling face first onto your bed, single. There was a black out that night and I had no candles.