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TBTS Reviews Not Untrue & Not Unkind

July 7, 2010

I’m going to use my TBTS debut to talk about someone else’s literary debut.  Ed O’Loughlin has been a journalist for decades, writing for the Irish Times, so it’s not particularly surprising that his first novel is a first-person reminiscence of an Irish journalist.  What is surprising is his deft touch and the ease with which he adapts his well-honed skills to fiction.  O’Loughlin’s work is not memoir, but is well-informed by his own time reporting from Africa; his narrator, Owen Simmons, recalls the years he spent there among a tightly knit group of foreign correspondents covering the continent’s hot spots.  Like many foreign correspondents, O’Loughlin has yielded to the compulsion to sum up his experiences; unlike many, his skills prove up to the task.

Owen is an engaging narrator; weary, burdened, and now about to inherit his unloved editor Cartwright’s job after Cartwright’s suicide, Owen’s reminiscence is triggered by a photograph of his friends in one of the dead man’s files.  From there, O’Loughlin spins the story of a tight-knit group of foreign journalists bouncing from hot spot to hot spot, from frying pan to fire, and yet manages to avoid the Zelig syndrome, where the narrator is always perfectly placed for every important event in the decade.  Instead of an inflated sense of self-importance, Owen speaks like a man divorced from his own ego and without particular reverence for his profession.  “People were always rising against Mobutu, had been for decades, but in a place like the Congo it was easy not to notice.  Tutsis, Rwandans, Che Guevara retro-groupies, whomever they were meant to be – captured Bukavu and laid siege to Goma, and we had to launch ourselves at the story in the usual headless dash.”  At one point, Owen and his colleagues discover the site of a massacre in the eastern Congo – still Zaire at this point – near the Rwandan border.  With a grim resolve they carry out their duty to document the tragedy, its perpetrators and its victims both unknown and unknowable, and in a few pitch-perfect lines evokes the way journalists must put their humanity on hold:

Fine stood to the right of the doorway, holding the neck of his T-shirt up over his mouth and nose.  Brereton turned and walked a few paces off and lit a cigarette.  He stood looking out across the camp, hands rammed deep in his pockets.  Tommo and Laura were fingering their cameras and waiting for the scribblers to have their fill.  Beatrice stood with them.

The ripped bodies sprawled ludicrously across each other in torn, oily clothes. … I let my gaze slide over the mass without focusing on detail, looking without seeing, a trick to be learned, the way an actor avoids the faces in the crowd.  A child tried to implore me but I refused to catch her eye.

It was necessary for us to try to count them.  I heard Fine muttering to himself, then he stopped, perplexed.

“Has anyone seen the other half of this baby?” he asked.  “We mustn’t count it twice.”

Through Owen, the author conveys not only the horrors journalists must confront, but also the profession’s daily trials and annoyances, everything from being trampled by high-powered, better-known journalists (“bigfoots”) to rivalries with correspondents from other countries (at one point, Owen derisively, and hilariously, refers to the French reporters covering the conflict in the Congo as the “Frogs of war”.)  O’Loughlin, in a single well-placed shot, skewers the entire genre of self-important journalistic memoir: “Tim Drysdale made a fortune by turning his three-week assignments into epics of suffering and hope, with titles he stole from an English lit poetry course.”  Later on, Drysdale does that very thing with Africa, turning a tragedy in which he shared no part into a book called (what else?) Not Untrue & Not Unkind.

Throughout the book, O’Loughlin conveys a sense of impending tragedy.  We know from the first lines that something befalls Owen and his party in Africa: “Ten years ago I became a hero, and when I came home my old paper took me on again.  They thought I’d be an ornament.”  But exactly what happens is kept from us, not even hinted at past the first pages, so when the book reaches its climax, it has the impact of a fist against the jaw when you’re distracted by a finger pointing at nothing.  O’Loughlin successfully hides his intent until the very end and thereby avoids dampening the narrator’s shock.  He does a fine job bringing us into the journalists’ circle as we observe them make and break friendships, love affairs, rivalries, at the center of which is his friendship and then love affair with his colleague Beatrice, whose image set off this whole chain of memories.  It’s not perfect: we’re left without fully understanding why Beatrice breaks off the affair after Owen hears the story of the death of her former lover in Bosnia, and some of the characters remain opaque, particularly Cartwright, but I’d imagine it’s because these things weren’t all that clear to the narrator, either.  If Owen can’t quite deliver it all wrapped up neatly, I’m ready to forgive him and his creator for it.

All told, Not Untrue & Not Unkind is a near-total success, combining a gripping narrative, a consistent voice, and a dark, professional grace.  I highly recommend a trip to your local bookstore for it.

Not Untrue & Not Unkind, Ed O’Loughlin, The Overlook Press, $26.95, hardcover.

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