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Brian Donovan is a twenty-year-old American delegated by his grandfather, an Irishman who fled the country after he assassinated a British policemen many years ago, to take $10,000 to Irish relatives engaged in IRA activities. A callow young man with no sense of purpose or commitment, he is easy prey for those who would use his ability to cross borders at will to further their own goals. His cousin Maire supports the IRA's new, more moderate position by being elected Sinn Fein city councillor from West Belfast, speaking out and collecting funds, such as those from her relatives in the U.S. Her extremist husband, Jimmy Coogan, however, feels that the moderate position is a sellout. He's stolen 10 pounds of plastique explosives and intends to "make a statement" when the moderate Provos have their national conference. He intends to use Brian to help him.
Hynes's depiction of Brian and Clare, the equally young American girlfriend Brian acquires in his travels, is spot-on. Having never had to deal with the hard truths, Brian and Clare are naïve, looking at the deadly predicament in which they find themselves as if it were part of a virtual reality game. As the conflicts within the IRA become more and more violent, the reader waits for Brian, a Guinness-drinking fun seeker, to grow up and take a stand. A thrilling and exciting can't-put-it-downer, this novel goes beyond the all-or-nothing conflicts we've come to associate with The Troubles in Northern Ireland and IRA violence in England. Here we also come to know some of the real, flawed humans from all sides who've become involved, however unwittingly--often by making emotional, rather than rational, choices about life-and-death issues. As the struggle reaches its violent culmination here, freedom and responsibility take on new meaning.
Along the way Brian meets Clare another young American, who he is romantically interested in. The two become caught up in a dangerous game with varying factions of the IRA. Clearly Brian's idealism and mythism about the IRA have not prepared him for the harsh realities which coexist in Ireland today. Brian is a boy playing a man's game and ill-prepared for the test of courage that he faces in making crucial moral decisions.
Clare and Brian serve as symbols of contrasting visions of morality and courage. Both are young and idealistic, but they have different ideals of loyalty, courage and ethics. It is interesting to follow them on their journey to see their evolving definitions of these issues. The tale is a very exciting one, but a very real one in which young people in Ireland today have to face these decisions on a daily basis. It is clear from the novel that the average American has little understanding of the scope of the movement.
I suggest this book for reading for anyone who enjoys a tale of adventure or who is interested in Ireland today.
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Fortunately for Hynes's readers, they are--and in this novel amusingly easy to identify. The ending is an obvious allegory--it clearly isn't meant to be taken literally, but the warning it conveys has a useful kick to it. Perhaps it might diminish some of the smugness of the people Hynes satirizes. Let's hope so.
You can't get much more cynical than Hynes does in The Lecturer's Tale. This book is, by turns, dark, delirious, hilarious and wicked. The protagonist is mild-mannered Nelson Humboldt, a visiting assistant professor in English at "Midwest University." When it comes to career choices, Nelson proved to be the ultimate fence sitter, straddling poststructuralism on the one side and traditionalism on the other. Nelson's days of fence sitting, however, are about to come to an end.
At Midwest, Nelson loves to spend his time sitting in the library's old clock tower (read Ivory Tower) where the university chooses to keep all the novels by "dead, white males." He keeps rereading and reresearching books and articles he knows he will never publish, although he chooses not to face that fact--just yet.
After being unceremoniously fired, by a female no less, Nelson is involved in a freak accident under the clock tower in which his right index finger is severed. Once it is reattached, Nelson makes the grand discovery that it (and thus he) have the power to make others do exactly as he wishes. Nelson beings to plot the very thing he thinks he wishes for the most--his return (in a blaze of glory) to "Midwest."
I think Hynes blames some of Nelson's problems on feminism. It is no accident that the book's two leading female protagonists have names that begin with the letter "V," Victoria Victorinix and Vita (whose very name means "life"), a strong proponent of gender theory whose own gender can certainly be called into question. It is also no mistake that the new library, the library where all the modern theorists are housed, is shaped in the form of a large letter "V." In fact, Nelson likes to contemplate this V-shaped annex, but only when safely tucked away in the ivory citadel of the old clock tower.
Does Nelson get what he wants? Sort of. Sort of, yes and sort of, no. Let's just say that when he wins, it is not traditionalism that produces his victories and when he loses, it is not poststructuralism that produces his loss. There is yet another evil on the horizon, one that Nelson never counted on battling. Ultimately, Nelson gets what Nelson deserves.
Those who thought Hynes let his readers down with the ending probably haven't spent much time in English or Comparative Literature Departments. The ending is absolutely perfect and epitomizes just what is going on in universities all across the United States today. If you love the book, but just don't understand the end, ask an English major. This is really too good to miss.
Hynes' writing is a delight. This is real satire, dark and cynical, but hilarious, too. I found myself laughing uproariously at the thought of all my former literature professors scowling at the recognition of themselves in Hynes' characters.
If you love satire, black comedy, or have any familiarity at all with university life, read The Lecturer's Tale. It really doesn't get any better than this.
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