The last few days, filled as they have been with torrential rainfall and flooding, were probably the right time to read Peter Murphy’s new novel, Shall We Gather at the River. If you’re a regular reader of the blog you’ll know that I was a big fan of Peter’s first novel, John The Revelator, and also that Peter is something of a mentor to me in terms of my own writing. Understandably I have been very much looking forward to reading SWGATR which was released two months ago.
The novel starts in the winter of 1984 in Murn in rural Ireland, a small town with the river Rua running through it. A freak flood occurs and with it, over the course of fourteen days, nine people walk into the river and take their own lives. The stories of these nine men are intercut with chapters describing the life of Enoch O’Reilly, a radio evangelist, Elvis fan and mama’s boy from Murn. While Enoch is the main character in the novel, The Rua is certainly the main supporting character; by turns malevolent, soothing and filled with mystery. “…it knows where the bodies are buried, but will keep their secret, all their secrets, the whole town’s secrets, the river air malarial with secrecy…”
Enoch’s father Frank is known as the “Marconi of Mweelrooney”, an Irish immigrant to the US who served in the Korean War as a communications engineer, specialising in radios. After his war experiences, he returns to Murn to live with his wife and raise Enoch, their only son. Frank is a secretive man spending much of his time in the basement of the family home, tinkering about with valves and electronics and old radios. One night Enoch steals down into the basement to snoop amongst his father’s things. He finds an old radio and when tuning it to other frequencies, comes across a broadcast from The Holy Ghost Radio. This is the event upon which the rest of Enoch’s life turns as it ignites a consuming passion for broadcasting and evanglism. Not, you understand, because Enoch believes in God (in fact he is thrown out of a seminary precisely because he confesses his lack of faith) but because Enoch senses the power one can hold when one is the communicator, on the pulpit or on the airwaves.
As the novel progresses it appears that the flood has been prophesied and in fact is a phenomenon which recurs at mathematical intervals. Enoch’s father had become obsessed with Marconi’s theory of eternal soundwaves – “an astral history of signals which have aged and degraded beyond our human hearing, but which one day might be Lazarused back to life through technological advances” – and was using his expertise to test this hypothesis. In many ways Frank’s obsession is mirrored in Enoch’s own, although Frank is the listener and Enoch wants to be listened to.
Based on the above description it may seem like the novel is potentially a gloomy experience for the reader – suicides, theories of immortal sound, a lonely and buffonish man who craves influence and attention – but Murphy is a skilled writer and alongside the passages of lyrical intensity there are great flashes of humour. Enoch’s star turn at the local variety show miming along to Elvis is brilliantly observed and once Enoch gets his very own radio show the reader is treated to his attempts to make each show more controversial than the last, including a show on the scourge of abortion which is soundtracked by Alice Cooper’s Dead Babies and culminates with Enoch as he “holds aloft a Cabbage Patch doll and violates it with a coat hanger while novelty-shop blood spurts from its eyes.”
I hugely enjoyed SWGATR. Yes, it is an unusual novel – the narrative jumps around in time, the subject matter is esoteric and the characters often not very likeable – but Murphy has written something original and true. I know Peter is influenced by writers who attempt to move the art form on somewhat and who are doing something different, people like Denis Johnson and JT LeRoy. Although he is not an advocate of experimental fiction for its own sake he believes that there is more than one way to tell a story and often the non-traditional route is more fitting. Certainly Peter’s prose leaps off the page and is remarkable for having its own narrative voice which is clearly and unmistakeably his.
No doubt Peter will be reading from SWGATR at various literary festivals this summer and if you get the chance to attend a reading I urge you to do so. He reads with an energy unlike many other authors and as a result it becomes a performance (think roaring and shouting and cackling with laughter and standing on chairs) rather than the usual worthy yet often staid experience. You can keep up with Peter’s readings, thoughts and wanderings on his official Facebook Page, and you can buy SWGATR in all good bookshops, so get on it!