The River and Enoch O'Reilly
By Peter Murphy
Like a river, a narrative has its course and wends its own particular course to its end. Like a traveler on a river, a reader may not see the turns coming, the cross-currents underneath or the rocks on the river banks on which the journey may be interrupted, or even abruptly halted. Reading Peter Murphy's The River and Enoch O'Reilly is like undertaking a rocky river journey.
Young Enoch is fascinated by the homemade radio transmission system his father has built in their basement. Not much else goes on in his miserable Irish town. The river rose and kept rising during the last onslaught, so much that it appears God broke his promise to Noah. People are lost, animals killed and property damaged. Enoch, listening to his father's radio, hears a transmisison that changes his life. It's the Holy Ghost Radio with fire and brimestone and the spirit of Elvis. Enoch plays with the settings, trying to keep up with the transmission, but loses it. Enoch's father is furious. The cellar door is locked and further transmission beyond Enoch's listening. He leaves town, heartbroken.
Most of Enoch's next years are the stuff of fable or street gutter. We see only one actual event -- a chance chaste encounter with a young lady -- and are left to decide for ourselves what's under the murkey surface waters. What did Enoch really do all those years? Did he travel the backroads of the American South? Did he wander from pub to pub in Ireland? Does it matter? Would it have made a difference? We don't know and it probably doesn't matter.
Enoch makes his way back to the old hometown and talks his way into a weekly radio show. It catches fire not when he is earnest but when he goes all McCarthy-holy roller preacher on his audience. Each week, they cannot wait for the scandalous rumors. But just when it appears the river of this narrative will take delicious twisty turns and be a dark journey, the story hits some big rocks and flounders.
Murphy shows what can happen when all the elements are in place for a unique work of fiction -- setting, premise, characters that could yield complex motivations and undergo great change, but not this time. The story deflates just when it looks like it's going to inflate and then inflate some more, perhaps bursting, perhaps getting right to the point just before it bursts. It's a great disappointment.
So at least the reader who perseveres can feel empathy for Enoch after hearing the wisps of a truly great narrative that gets lost. Their journeys are similar.
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