This is a wonderful novel that delighted me no less on this reading than on any other. There are all sorts of clichés that could apply: quintessentially Irish being but one. That it may be, but it is so much more, because it takes that cliché, turns it outside in and downside up, gives it a bloody good shake, and then proceeds to subvert everything that emerges.
On the surface it is a simple tale. The unnamed protagonist, an unsuccessful farmer and pub owner, is obsessed with a fictional philosopher by the name of de Selby. Having written what he believes to be the definitive critical work on de Selby, he finds he does not have enough money to publish it, the family businesses having been run into the ground by one Divney. Together they plot to rob a wealthy local man called Mathers. During the robbery, the protagonist kills Mathers and buries him in a ditch.
Whilst burying the corpse, Divney makes off with the money and hides it, claiming they need to draw no suspicion on themselves. The protagonist does not let Divney out of his sight for the next three years, finally persuading him to tell him where the money is. Divney tells him it is under the floorboards of Mathers' house.
From this point on the slightly odd, slightly comical tale takes a double left hand turn up and off the wall. Surreal hardly begins to cover the protagonist’s adventures. He finds Mathers still sitting in his own house although the box with the money has gone. Mathers tells him of a police station where the policemen will know where the box has gone.
The police, however, are obsessed with bicycles, putting forward a strange theory about the way in which people riding bicycles swap their substance so that bicycles become more human and human become bicycle-like the more they are together. There are many other oddities and wonders, although none divert from the journey the protagonist makes to the gallows. But even that is not as it seems and the denouement takes us full circle, with the prospect of a large section of the book repeating in a cyclical exploration of absurdities. The text is peppered with footnotes referring to de Selby and his own philosophies creating a whole world beyond the novel.
For all its complexities and absurdities, this is not a difficult book to read. It does, however, repay close attention, because it is one of the great novels of the twentieth century. That claim is often made, but O’Brien ranks with Beckett and Joyce. It is a powerful book that taps the mythology of Ireland as much as it uses the national character (often in comic form) to explore universal verities.
Whilst many hail O’Brien’s first book as a masterpiece, I believe it is this work that consolidates his place as a literary genius and which takes the slightly shambolic form of the first book and creates from it a firmly structured work of modernist form that explores the inner landscape of humanity in a way few other books manage.