Divided Communities

Divided Communities

Jefferson Chasedelves into a novel set in Northern Ireland at the height of the Second World War
Jefferson Chase

25 September 2007

Publication: Issue 66

Maurice Leitch has been called the “grim reaper of Northern Irish fiction,” but he’s a BBC correspondent and a novelist, not a man in a black hood with a scythe.Leitch has been training his fictional eye on Ulster for more than three decades, and his job as a journalist is evident in his style — knowledgeable and colloquial, but also distanced and clear-eyed.For his 1998 novel The Smoke King, Leitch picked an unusual period in Northern Irish history, World War II, when the region played host to Allied troops from across the pond.An African-American GI, Willie Washington, is stationed in a provincial Ulster town, where he is confronted with a number of previous unknown temptations. One of them is an affair with an Irishwoman — a hazardous undertaking considering the racism of both the US Army and the local populace.Another is the local drink.Fatefully, he decides to hoist a few bevvies with a trio of fellow GIs, who are more interested in a fight than a pint.Why, if hardy came to hardy, he could whup all three of them, no sweat, he told himself, even if a stick-knife came into play. He took another gulp of that old black beer, and when he looked at the bar he could see another line of bottles materialise there as if by magic. Looking back on it this had to be the moment when he started to get seriously drunk.Inebriation is a mistake — Washington’s night out ends in a fatal shooting.Washington’s misfortune gives a dissolute local law enforcement officer a chance for late-in-life redemption: Drink was at the root of it, of course, he recognised that, but he still felt there had to be something else, not just the booze, about acting in such a way, defying the rules for once, instead of always being the way he was when he was sober, Sergeant Denis Francis Lawlor, old enough to know better, holding on to get his pension, just, knuckles whitened as now.Sargeant Lawlor — an mistrusted import from the Republic — decides he will use the murder case to show that he is something more than the stereotypical good-for-nothing provincial cop.Leitch gives this set-up an original spin by having Washington, who is innocent, flee to a small uninhabited island in the River Lough.Isolated from society, Washington reverts to his animal instinct for survival. Investigating the killing, the now sober Lawlor delves deeper and deeper into the hypocrisy of the community he has spent — indeed, wasted — his life serving.But to get up the nerve for the final confrontation, Lawlor must do some reverting of his own.Sunk in the back of the boat, Lawlor put the chill, slightly concave quarter-bottle of Redbreast to his lips and drank deeply, the neat ten-year-old going down like mother’s milk. He didn’t even shudder. Not a spasm. So much for abstinence and the grand new regime.When the two men finally meet, American race tensions and Northern Irish sectarian rivalries collide head on.Strange as it may sound, there not much separating Leitch’s pessimistic portrayal of Ulster from comedy. The characters are weak but not inherently evil, and there’s considerable humor in the idea of a group of rural Southerners plunked down amidst multi-syllabic Gallic place names, warm beer and a conflict they know nothing about.And that makes The Smoke King, despite its ultimate bleakness, a very good read. Leitch’s prose goes down with elegant ease.

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