Floods and fraudulent preachers and rural towns and mass suicide and mysterious voices ranting over the airwaves: Peter Murphy’s sophomore effort doesn’t half try to jam it all in. Like its predecessor, John the Revelator, Shall We Gather At The River is a novel drenched with Old Testament pomp and horror. Enoch O’Reilly, its protagonist—I hesitate to say hero—is a non-believing evangelist, broadcasting arcane warnings, moralistic rants and predictions of doom to his credulous audience, the denizens of an Irish town (the same fictional locale as in John) that’s dominated by the Rua, a river more demonic than watery, a river that floods to an unnatural schedule, driving locals to madness and suicide. The book gives us a potted history of Enoch and his family, and glimpses into the miserable lives of the souls due to die in the 1984 flooding. It’s packed with references to Irish mythology, speculative varieties of radio technology, a sort of eco-mysticism, and, of course the more end-times-oriented parts of the Bibles. You certainly can’t fault Murphy’s ambition.
If you’ve read his previous book, though, you’ll soon find that this is a very different sort of beast to John The Revelator, religious references and setting aside; while the earlier novel was a fairly straight-up Bildungsroman with more than a dash of misery and crime, relatively few characters, and a narrative that brought us from A to Z without much fuss, this is structurally looser, oscillating from one character’s story to the next without always evidencing a clear sense of progression in a plot that’s already laid bare from the start—after all, we’re told up front that pretty much everyone is going to drown. So the purpose of this novel isn’t so much to unveil causality as it is to create an atmosphere designed to draw the reader into a world that’s thick with creepy happenings, harbingers of cruel fate, and near-demented woodsmen. Murphy’s clear literary influences are the Americans Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy, joint keepers of the biblically insane, not to mention McCarthy’s recurring apocalyptic visions; Enoch’s misanthropic complaints aren’t a million miles from A Confederacy of Dunces territory; Murphy’s brand of Hibernian Gothic horror owes a debt (that I’m sure will be over-emphasised in reviews like this) to fellow-Irishman Patrick McCabe (The Butcher Boy), and perhaps his contemporary, Kevin Barry, whose short story ‘Fjord of Killary’ has more than a touch of Noah about it; and, finally, the batch of partially explained suicides will probably draw Eugenides comparisons, too. But does it all work?
Short answer: I don’t really think so.
Long answer: the lack of a clear plot and some issues with structure and tone make it a difficult book with which to engage, and not difficult in a Will-Self-modernist way, but rather in a this-isn’t-a-text-that’s-entirely-resolved kind of way. The plot and structure seem to play against each other in a way that isn’t particularly useful. While the most consistent thread in the book is that of Enoch’s development from odd, lonely kid to lying, ranting preacher, to regretful ex-preacher, and lastly, to water-divining messianic figure, the prologue and the other sections point us constantly towards the flood and the suicide as the backbone of the novel. Enoch’s sections, then, build up to the flood—the catastrophe that he’s been inadvertently, and pretty disingenuously, predicting—but seeing as we already know all about it, thanks to the prologue and the omniscient narrator, Enoch’s sections lack a certain narrative tension. As a character, too, he’s rather unappealing, so there’s not likely to be many people reading to root for him. His derailment, then—his various disillusionments—felt inevitable, but also like a distraction from the main story, which was, of course, the flood. That all mightn’t be a problem (because, like I say, it’s more atmospheric than it is plot-driven), but for the fact that the other characters, the soon-to-be-drowned crew, don’t get much of a look-in. Their cameos—naughty kids, arsonist, mad girl, bereaved parent—are considerably outweighed by the airtime devoted to Enoch, and this, to me, felt unbalanced in a book that touts itself as the story of a town and its tragedy. There’s the sense of narrative responsibility ducked and voices left insufficiently heard.
Of course, perhaps I’m pining for another novel; this isn’t a eulogy to the dead as much as it is a paean to the powers of a fucked-up universe, where a river can send men mad and plan to flood its banks and make people fling themselves into its water. And Murphy certainly evokes that—Enoch, like his father before him, taps into a kind of ethereal malevolence that goes beyond the petty details of any individual victim. But, nevertheless, the author does promise to tell the victims’ tales (‘Every man has his story and his life is in the telling’), and those tales don’t bear enough narrative weight when compared to Enoch’s—and Enoch’s history feels both parenthetical and over-long. Some of the trouble here also lies with the tone. Unlike McCarthy’s dark messiahs (see the Judge, in Blood Meridian), Enoch is a slightly comical figure (he’s obsessed with Elvis, for a start), but because he’s not the narrator, his ludicrousness makes it hard to gauge the book’s tone. If the book is to succeed, then the reader ought to be seduced by Enoch’s world-view—we need to believe, with him, in the truth about the flood, about the world and radio-waves and the Rua. But he’s half-mad and a liar and generally unpleasant, which makes such empathy tricky. Which, in turn, is why I suggest that this novel is at odds with itself; that it hosts a vision that it doesn’t properly realise.
Any Cop?: Murphy is trying to re-mythologise Ireland, to add to—with his cursed town of Ballo and his river Rua (Irish for ‘red’), places the book calls ‘charismatic sites’—the already busy web of legends and tall tales that make up the country’s oral history—but this particular attempt is shackled by the way the writer has chosen to present it. The ingredients alone are tantalising (who doesn’t love a mad prophet, or natural disasters, or cosmic conspiracies?), but the whole disappoints.