It’s been a good year for Irish writers; then again, it often is. Colm Toibin and Colum McCann both produced strong novels, Kevin Barry won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and now ex-film critic Paul Lynch gives us one of the year’s most striking debuts with his darkly lyric cat-and-mouse tale Red Sky in Morning.
The novel begins in Ireland in the early 1800s. Having been unceremoniously evicted from his property, Coll Coyle, a poor labourer, goes off in search of his landlord to find out why. But the encounter leads to a scuffle in which the landlord, a surly, mean-spirited man named Hamilton, falls from his horse and is killed. Coyle knows no one will think this unintentional: when he was a boy, his father drowned while trying to save Hamilton’s horse from the river. So with Hamilton’s foreman, John Faller, hot on his heels, Coyle leaves his daughter and pregnant wife and sets off on foot across the sodden, unforgiving countryside.
In his fugitive state, Coyle is a virus to everyone he comes across. His brother (who, like his father, worked for Hamilton) is tortuously hung by—of all things—his thumbs, his home torched. Nor is the uncle with whom Coyle spends a night spared Faller’s wrath because of his age. When he eventually reaches the coast, Coyle befriends a man known as The Cutter who helps him elude Faller’s hawkish patrol by buying him a ticket to America.
From here, Coyle’s trials take the familiar cast of the immigrant’s story: after barely surviving weeks on a coffin ship, he and The Cutter wind up digging rail lines in cholera-infected camps in Pennsylvania. During a rare trip to a local bar, Coyle spies Faller—and vice versa—and the chase begins anew. This time, however, Faller, who no longer has the advantage of being on home turf, discovers that he too has a mysterious antagonist nipping at his heels.
Faller’s sociopathic tendencies recall Anton Chigurh, the cattle gun-wielding hitman from Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. Faller also has an unusual signature weapon: an ornately carved double-barreled flintlock pistol. And like Chigurh, he has a habit of tormenting well-meaning strangers with sadistic riddles. A scene where Faller treats a gunshot wound to his leg by searing his flesh with a red hot poker echoes one where Chigurh patches up a gunshot wound to his leg in a hotel room using veterinary supplies.
The two novels are similar in more general ways, too. Both involve manhunts that begin in elemental landscapes (Ireland, Texas) and that spill across international borders. Like McCarthy, Lynch writes terse, quotation mark-less dialogue that capitalizes on local speech and inflections. More curiously, both novels end with an account of a dream experienced by the main character.
Of course, much of the above typifies revenge stories in general (though Lynch’s book can’t, by definition, be a Western, it often feels like one). And despite the novels’ notable similarities, McCarthy’s Southern gothic is starkly different from Lynch’s Celtic baroque. Lynch has a particular gift for writing landscape, which is often evoked on the diagonal as slanting, slack, sluggish or slumped. Pathetic fallacy is a kind of default mode for Lynch (“the earth corrupt before him and filled with violence”) though the elements also infect his characters (“the suck tide of her breathing”). However many terms Inuit are supposed to have for snow, Lynch has at least ten more for sky; the descriptions are endless, but also endlessly varied.
Some plot points sit awkwardly—a nudge that Faller is Hamilton’s real father still doesn’t justify his ruthlessness and utter lack of compassion—but at all times the gnarled beauty of Lynch’s poetic prose makes this novel a singular achievement.
—Emily Donaldson is a freelance critic and editor