Having finished What It Takes: The Way to the White House, Richard Ben Cramer’s account of the 1988 presidential election, yesterday and written about it last night, I was ready for my next book. The lead review in the Sunday NYT book review today is Joy Williams’ look at Karen Russell’s new short story collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove. Reading it online Friday, I was prompted yet again to consider reading Russell’s acclaimed 2011 novel Swamplandia! But what really got my attention was Williams’ description of Russell’s first book, “that extraordinary debut collection, “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves” — 10 astonishments inimitable in style and execution.”
I added St. Lucy’s to my reading list, downloaded the free opening section, read a page or two, then turned instead to another book, Joseph O’Neill’s Blood-Dark Track: A Family History. It appeared initially in 2001. When O’Neill’s novel Netherland became such a success in 2008, it was reissued. I loved Netherland, but wasn’t prompted to read Blood-Dark Track at the time. Perhaps it wasn’t even available. Last week, having seen a reference to Netherland somewhere, I looked up O’Neill and was reminded of Blood-Dark Track. Now I’m reading it.
What’s it about? In his February 2002 NYT review, Colin Harrison summarized:
How few of us truly know our grandfathers. Even if our lives overlap, even if they are geographically proximate, the men who fathered our parents are often depleted or ill by the time we may question them. Their struggles are decades past, their money and marriages made or lost, their paths long taken. And if by chance they remain vigorous, the particulars of their lives — their secrets — are not necessarily for the sharing.
Joseph O’Neill faced an especially tantalizing impasse. As a boy, he became aware that his Turkish grandfather, Joseph Dakad, had been imprisoned in Palestine during World War II. ”A shiver of an explanation accompanied this information,” O’Neill writes; ”the detention had something to do with spying for the Germans.” He also learned that his Irish grandfather, James O’Neill, had been jailed in Ireland during the same war, a member of the Irish Republican Army. But in neither case were more details forthcoming. O’Neill’s parents rarely discussed the men whose names he shared.
”Blood-Dark Track” is O’Neill’s reconstruction of the lives of his grandfathers, what he calls ”a slow, idiotic awakening” that for the reader is anything but. Rather, the book is an enormously intelligent plunge into the World War II era that involves, among other elements, an unsolved 65-year-old murder, a rusted pistol, clandestine train travel and assignations in the dark. O’Neill, who is the author of two novels, adeptly makes scene and character where otherwise there might be only chronology, but he also draws on his experience as a lawyer for insight into the Realpolitik of armies, embassies, prisons and families — or anywhere else men and power inevitably collide.
I’m only about 20 pages in, so I have nothing to add, other than seconding Harrison’s statement about not knowing our grandfathers. One of mine, a colorful figure, was born in Chelm (in Poland), moved to New York, made and lost lots of money, lost family as well (to the Holocaust), and died just after I turned three. The other, also arriving in New York from Eastern Europe, remarried shortly after my grandmother’s death—when my father was young—and ultimately moved to Florida. I saw him only a handful of times prior to his own death during my senior year in high school. I couldn’t write a book as interesting as O’Neill’s, but I’m confident that there’s material for one.
Blood-Dark Track also received a 2002 review in the New York Review of Books, where Fintan O’Toole wrote:
Joseph O’Neill is the epitome of cosmopolitanism, about as far from the ferocious demands of blood, soil, and ethnicity as it seems possible to go. He was born in Cork in the south of Ireland in 1964, and regards himself as Irish. Though his father is from Cork, however, his mother came from the Syrian Christian minority in the Turkish port of Mersin. O’Neill’s father was a project manager for international construction companies, so Joseph spent his early childhood traveling through Africa and Asia, and then grew up in The Hague. He spoke Dutch on the street, French at home, and English as one of the multinational group of students at the city’s British school. He now lives in London, speaks with an English accent, and works as a business lawyer and novelist. If anyone can be said to have escaped from history, it is him.
This very removal, perhaps, prompted him at the age of thirty in 1994 to intrude on what he calls “the jurisdiction of parental silence.” He had been told that both of his grandfathers, Joseph Dakad in Turkey and James O’Neill in Ireland, had spent much of World War II in prison camps. Dakad, a well-to-do hotelier, was arrested by the British on a business trip to Palestine and interned on suspicion of spying for the Germans. O’Neill, a member of the IRA, which allied itself with the Nazis and mounted a bombing campaign in England, was interned by the Irish government. In the face of his family’s reluctance to discuss these events, he decided to investigate. Blood-Dark Track is a record of this journey into the past. What makes it fascinating is the honesty with which O’Neill confronts the powerful attraction of an unyielding political fanaticism even for a rational, sophisticated, deracinated man like himself.
I’m looking forward to learning more.