Apr/May 2013  •   Reviews & Interviews

This Magnificent Desolation

Review by Ann Skea

This Magnificent Desolation.
Thomas O'Malley.
Bloomsbury. 2013. 405 pp.
ISBN 978 1 4088 3446 6.

It is rare to find a book written in a language that so beautifully conveys its imaginative essence, or one with a title that is so exactly right. O'Malley's writing is often lyrical and evocative, and he can take the reader and his characters to places far removed from the gritty world in which they live. And he borrows his title, This Magnificent Desolation, from the words Buzz Aldrin spoke from the surface of the moon. The first moon-landing haunts the book, as do the voices of the Apollo astronauts themselves, which ten-year-old Duncan hears through the static on his beloved ancient radio. Duncan believes that the astronauts never managed to get back to earth. He believes, too, that he remembers the moment of his birth, when God spoke to him.

Duncan has no memory of his past. He knows only what Brother Candice has told him about the terrible snow-storm, the stranded train, the deaths, and the meteor shower that happened on the night his mother left him at the orphanage run by the Cappucin Grey Brothers of Mercy in northern Minnesota. His present, his life with the Brothers and with his friends Julia and Billy, are all that he knows, and although he is not the narrator of his story, his unemotional, non-judgmental view of the world and his imaginative visions shape this book.

Duncan's memory of his mother is a dream. So, when she does come to take him from the orphanage, he has no idea how his life will change. He knows that Maggie, his mother, was once a talented singer. Now, her voice over-strained and broken, she works as a nurse and sings at night in a run-down bar. Maggie sings to him, cares for him, promises never to leave him again, and takes him with her to the Windsor Tap, but her life is clearly hard and is often only made bearable by alcohol.

Joshua McGreavey, a Vietnam veteran who is Maggie's friend, comes and goes from their lives. He works as a tunneler on the San Padre Tunnel project 70 feet beneath San Francisco bay, and when power fails and the crew are left in darkness not knowing what is going on, or during the interminable, slow decompression rides up in the lifts at the end of each shift, he relives the beauty and the horrors of the Vietnam jungles—but mostly the beauty. Medication dulls his memories, but the sudden death of his work-mates in a flooded tunnel hits him hard. Sometimes he disappears for long, unexplained periods of time. Sometimes, as Duncan accidentally discovers, he fights in vicious, unregulated fist-fights in a derelict dockyard.

O'Malley writes about the recent past. The world in which Duncan and Maggie and Joshua live is not the fast-moving, high-rise, modern business world, and there is something of Steinbeck in his ability to capture the atmosphere of lives lived always on the edge of poverty, surrounded by loss and death. But over the four years of Duncan's life in O'Malley's book, the harsh realities are tempered by moments of great, imaginative vision. Duncan accepts people at face-value, and Joshua becomes like a surrogate father to him, replacing the lost father he often thinks about, but whose identity and character Maggie will not divulge.

Joshua teaches him to ride his old Indian motorbike and helps him when Maggie's drinking gets out of hand. Clay, the barman at the Windsor Tap, looks out for him. Julie, Billy, and the Brothers at the orphanage all recur in Duncan's dreams. And the Christmas Train, which got fatally stuck in the terrible snow-storm, and from which only Duncan and his mother survived, becomes a recurring and wonderful vision that acts as a metaphor for life. Traveling brightly-lit through the snow, full of life, joym and beauty, it encounters unpredictable disasters and death, but there is also survival.

At the end of the book, Duncan, alone, boards another train, in another snow-storm, and travels, like all of us, into an unknown future with only visions and dreams to rely on.


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