"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Things go Yeatsian for people like us
Kevin Wood Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

People Like Us
By Chris Binchy
Macmillan, 244 pp, 10.99 pounds

Chris Binchy's People Like Us, the story of a Dublin family's implosion, brings to mind the work of another Dublin writer, William Butler Yeats:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Living in a small house in Dublin, Paul Walsh and his family are driving one another to distraction for lack of elbow room. The three children bicker incessantly, Paul and his wife, Ruth, have no privacy, and 17-year-old Clare is sharing a bedroom with her 7-year-old sister, Louise, while brother Fin, the middle child, has only "a box" of a room to himself.
When Ruth suggests moving to a larger home in the housing estates on the edge of the city, Paul has his doubts, but since Ruth is the one who always seemed to know what was best for the kids and family, he keeps them to himself.

While North American suburbs tend to be the domain of the middle class, it is clear that to Walsh the move is step down the social ladder, to a place just a hair above the slums, not the sort of place for "people like us." Gangs of bored teens hang around the neighborhood with nothing to do but drink, fight and antagonize the neighbors, not at all the sort Paul wants his older daughter involved with. But as with the move, Paul is powerless to stop things once they are in motion and before long his daughter is moping about the house giving him the silent treatment, driving a wedge between her parents.

As things spin out of control, violence erupts, innocence is lost and Paul finds himself doing and saying things in anger he never thought he would, driving his family farther apart every time he tries and fails to make a stand, while Clare pushes him in all the wrong directions with the furious righteousness peculiar to teenagers.

While Binchy is no Yeats, his prose is not without a certain rough poetry of its own. He skillfully creates a mounting sense of unease, illustrating Paul's discomfort in his new surroundings. He takes the reader into the minds of not only Paul and Clare, but also Robbie, the budding psychopath who leads the local gang of yobs, and Joe, the slightly odd neighbor who is the target of much of Robbie's scorn.

In Paul, Binchy shows us a well-intentioned but weak man, who defers to his wife to avoid rows, getting up on his hind legs and speaking his mind at precisely the wrong time and in the wrong way. Paul's pent-up resentment leads to explosive anger the reader can empathize with even while it repels them.

His portrait of Robbie, a bored boy who delights in trouble if only to break the monotony, is a nuanced look at someone whose inability to articulate or examine his own feelings has made him brutal and ambitionless.

Clare, with her selfish emotional manipulations and indignant teenage outrage at her father's failure to trust her, also becomes in the end a "rough beast, its hour come at last."

People Like Us is an insightful, engrossing examination of how things fall apart.

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