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Paul Watkins is not just the best young writer we have, he may well be our best living writer, period.  His first book, Night Over Day Over Night, published when he was just 23, was nominated for the Booker Prize.  Since then he has added a series of excellent novels and one brilliant memoir, Stand Before Your God, that have earned him the reputation of a modern Hemingway or Conrad.  His work certainly warrants these lofty comparisons and his omission from Granta's Twenty Best Writers Under Forty casts a shadow on the whole list.

Promise of Light opens, in 1921, with Ben Sheridan taking a ferry back to his home in Jamestown, Rhode Island.  He has just secured a long sought job in a bank and his whole future seems open before him.  But by the end of the night, his fireman father will lie dead as the result of a blood transfusion from Ben, which reveals that Ben was not his son.  In fulfillment of his "father's" dying wish, Ben takes his ashes back to Ireland, where he hopes to discover his real parents.  But before he even reaches land, he is embroiled in the bloody Irish Rebellion, as it turns out that his father was a legendary IRA gunrunner who, like a figure out of myth, was expected to return one day.

Watkins brilliantly combines Ben's search for his true identity with rousing action sequences, indeed the final fifty pages of the book depict a running battle between Ben's band of IRA gunmen and the dread English Black and Tans as they race to the farmhouse where the man Ben now believes to be his father is holed up.

The comparisons of Watkins and Hemingway are based on both the settings of his novels (in wartime, on fishing boats, in Africa) and the clarity of his prose.  Here he describes Ben's reaction to the death, in battle, of a lobsterman named Tarbox:

    I knelt with the others, dew soaking through my trousers, and I tried to remember a prayer.  But
    nothing came to mind, not even a song.  All I could think of were Tarbox's bright-painted crab-pot
    floats, bobbing in the water off Lahinch.  And now Mrs. Fuller's words sank into me, about whole
    generations dying out.  I saw how it would be.  Tarbox's wife would move away and their
    tin-roofed shack would fold back into the earth.  There would be no children to inherit the land and
    keep the name alive.  The faint scratches that Tarbox had left on the earth would be rubbed out by a
    year or two of wind and rain.

    I had not liked him much.  If he had lived and I'd gone back home again, I would not have
    remembered him kindly.  But now I cried for Tarbox and for his wife, because I had been jealous of
    how much they were in love.

The reasons for comparison to Conrad are evident in his description of the brutal fanatic leader of the IRA cell that Ben joins up with:

    I couldn't imagine a childhood for Clayton.  I couldn't imagine him younger or older or any way
    except the way he was now.  To me, Clayton had begun to make sense.  He didn't try, like the
    others, to live as if the war could be forgotten from time to time in the dark-paneled walls of
    Gisby's pub or in front of a fire at night.  Clayton lived in black and white.  He saw no boundary to
    violence.  The war never quit and his instincts for war never rested.  he had no other instincts.
    Everything else had been put away in a warehouse in his mind.  he claimed no friends or love of
    family because he could be hurt by people who hurt them.

Such are the men that Conrad warned us of, time and again.

The other thing that makes Watkins' work exceptional, is a moral core which seems increasingly rare in our society, never mind in our literature and culture in general.  His characters recognize that their actions have consequences and behave as if they cared about those consequences.  They are capable of making ethical judgments--a quality that seems to be disappearing elsewhere.

I urge anyone who is not familiar with the work of this great young author to remedy that situation post haste.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (A+)

  

Websites:

See also:

Paul Watkins (2 books reviewed)
General Literature
Book-related and General Links:
    -Interview (Peddie School Magazine)
    -INTERVIEW: (Peddie School)
    -The Interview (Wykehamists Web Site)
    -Paul Watkins Web Site (Andrew Summers)
    -REVIEW: of Archangel (Erik Burns, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Archangel By Paul Watkins (James William Brown, Bookpage)
    -REVIEW: of The Story of My Disappearance (Larry Swindell, Fort Worth Star-Telegram
    -REVIEW: of STAND BEFORE YOUR GOD (Lorene Cary, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of IN THE BLUE LIGHT OF AFRICAN DREAMS (Carolyn Gaiser, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Night Over Day Over Night (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
    -Paul Watkins: Back to a Death in the Lawless Everglades REVIEW: of Lost Man's River By Peter Matthiessen (Literary Review)

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