New Review of The Brothers’ Lot

Many thanks to my dear friend Ben Tyner for taking the time and effort to pen this thoughtful review of the Brothers’ Lot and to Tim Varian for hosting it.

Original post is here

[FYI, this review is packed with spoilers]
Ben Tyner, Assistant Professor of History, Union College, Lincoln, Nebraska

Kevin Holohan’s The Brothers’ Lot is a dark, magical realist satire set in mid-to-late 20th century Dublin and largely focusing on a small (fictional) Catholic school for impoverished children. The Brothers of Godly Coercion School for Young Boys of Meager Means (or, more commonly, “De Brudders”), Kevin writes, had been founded in the previous century by the Venerable Saorseach O’Rahilly. O’Rahilly had been a syphilitic drunk when he received his divine calling directly from on high. “You must abjure your drunkenness and vice and dedicate yourself to steering the young boys of Ireland onto the path of goodness, devotion, Gaelic football, fluent mellifluous Gaelic, purity, chastity, and more Gaelic football,” [138] God told him. His biography, turned hagiography, is acted out every year at the school by student conscripts on Venerable Saorseach O’Rahilly Day, and includes the “miracle of the hurling triumph of Carlow over Cork which was ascribed to the intervention of O’Rahilly…and…[the] Pope granting permission for the limited veneration of Saorseach O’Rahilly on the basis of that miracle.” [139] (listen to Kevin reading from O’Rahilly’s fictional biography here). A century later, the order of brothers carry on in their anachronistic quest with such cruelty that nature itself (as well as the brutalized student body) rebels against them, with the shrieks and groans of the increasingly violent resistance of the walls and ceilings of the buildings within the Brothers’ doomed Lot.

I’ve known Kevin for six or seven years and my life has been enriched by his friendship and wisdom. So I was far from an unbiased reader when I first opened The Brothers’ Lot, his first published novel. I wanted to enjoy it, and anyone who knows Kevin must have been cheering for him in the same way, because he is the type of friend who prompts wishes of success. Imagine my pleasure, then, when I found that I not only enjoyed the book, but that it kept me up all night, enraptured, that it consistently made me laugh and shake with anger, and that I finished it in one long extended sitting.

I’ve since learned that I wasn’t the only one to have this experience with the book, and after some reflection and a second reading, I am even more convinced that this book demands and deserves to be taken seriously.

The first reason that this book succeeds is the wit of the author. The book is chock full of perfect neologisms, hilarious titles and artfully verbed phrases which allow the reader to approach and engage with the darkness of clerical abuse without instant aversion. One of Kevin’s most frequent targets is the arbitrary, entrenched anachronism of the religious educational system in Dublin, especially as it is blended with a petty Irish nationalism. Brother Mulligan, for example, uses class time for crucial lessons about how to spot a Protestant. The answer, if you must know, is to look for “The yellah skin, the eyes too close together, and the quarter-past-nine-feet.” [194] Mulligan also attempts to choke a fellow Catholic for being descended from an informer to the Black and Tans, while Brother Moody uses PE class to teach the boys to drill march with hurling sticks while cheering them on with “What have we suffered? Eight hundred years of oppression! When is the time? The time is now! The time for what? One Holy Catholic Ireland! What do we do with Planters? Drive them back to Scotland!” [273-4] The students have been brutalized into equating learning with submission and live in an entirely different mental universe to the Brothers’ silly devotions to Our Lady of Indefinite Duration or the equally shallow IRA shop that sell children loose cigarettes in the pursuit of Irish reunification. But the consequences of student resistance can be brutal: transfer to an even worse “industrial school” like the wonderfully named “Drumgloom” or, in Cork, the “Oblates of the Impervious Heart of Herod,” where the brutality of the educators is apparently even more severe.

Kevin thus uses language to keep the tone light even while also using his wordsmithery to draw us deliberately into the intensely damaging seriousness of clerical abuse. From the first page, he foreshadows thickly. Through Brother Boland, the Cassandra of the Brothers of Godly Coercion and one of the few sympathetic members of the order, we learn of the coming of “something other,” a dark, mysterious force bent on the destruction of the sick school. Ironically, Boland’s greater compassion and sensitivity is explained by the falling of a school desk on his head some decades before – his subsequent derangement seems to inoculate him from the more general madness of the place. In the 3 1/2 page prologue, Boland ‘wisps’ around the monastery at night investigating this dark force like a “tattered black fog with the shakes.” His cassock “hangs like a crow carcass,” his slippers slap like “dead fish” on the stairs, his “talonlike fingers” ‘spider’ their way along the damp walls until, in the bell tower (his refuge), he is convulsed by a mystic seizure leaving him in catatonic rigidity until morning, where outside on the street trucks grind their gears “like prophets’ teeth.”

These flourishes of verbal precocity never feel gratuitous: in this case the language serves to deliver us directly into the central plot arc which karmically links the cruelty of the Order to their charges with the slow physical collapse of the buildings (and eventually, the Brothers themselves). The first evidence of this progressive undoing (which Boland refers to, variously, as ‘crispations’, ‘yieldings,’ ‘rents in the fabric, ‘a weakening,’ ‘sadness in the walls’ etc.) is the falling of roof slates which are left scattered around the school yard “like birds turned to stone.” That these tiles fall directly after the Head Brother viciously beats a student during the mass seems at first to be coincidental.

The second thing that makes this book so successful is the large and beautifully crafted cast of characters and the striking set pieces in which they are set in motion. Besides Boland, the rest of the Brothers are a catalog of vice and cruelty. Gluttonous, power-hungry, vicious, and, at best, pathetically weak and out of control, the Order is completely (and willfully) oblivious to the real meaning of the strange happenings around them. There is the ambitious, chain-smoking, hairless head brother, Loughlin, who moves “in a wave of cruel blubber.” Loughlin shows himself to be capable of physical, sexual and psychological abuse of the children, as well as of capitalizing on a later disaster to try to make the deteriorating school a site of lucrative pilgrimage. There is the lay Vice Principal Pollock, equipped with an “angular voice” and the visage of a “balding ginger-haired bat” who (also) gets off on abuse. Then there is the insanely pious Brother Tobin, who interprets every destructive event as a miracle and spends his off-hours in a spiritual practice consisting of cutting dirty words (like “corset” or “breast”) out of the school’s library books with a razor blade and eating them, so that they will pass through his bowels with the other filth. Then there are Brothers Cox and Mulligan who try to drown their shame in alcohol and a bromide and ashes formula, respectively. The motivations for cruelty, then, are appropriately multiform.

There is Brother Kennedy, who moves with “reptilian urgency” and among other things teaches Physical Education, which he uses to push Gaelic football at the expense of the “bloody vile foreign garrison game” of soccer. His knowledge of PE, Kevin writes, “was limited and extended little further than the precepts laid down for the Brothers in a recent circular from the National Conclave that exhorted them to abstain from: ‘1. The use of intoxicating drink. 2. The wearing of soft hats (berets and birettas excluded). 3. The public fondling of young boys. 4. Peering into trams, omnibuses, hansom cabs, taxis, or other…conveyances likely to cause impure thoughts.’” [50]

It was here, with that damning modifier ‘public,’ that I first realized that Kevin was not going to bury sexual abuse. Indeed, in the next chapter, after a long detour by Brother Kennedy on the slippery slope of flaccid hats, one of the boys, Scully, falsely writes down the name of another boy, Brian Egan, during a call to volunteer for a vocation among the Brothers. When the prank is discovered, Egan is punished and sexually abused first by Brother Cox first, and then, Kevin implies, Loughlin, after he blackmails Egan to say nothing.

This act of abuse occurs at the same moment that the massive periodic table crashes to the floor in Mr. Barry’s chemistry class. If it isn’t yet clear that the fabric of nature itself is reacting to the brothers’ solipsistic viciousness, it becomes more obvious when the school clock refuses to continue ticking and ringing its bell. Even time rejects De Brudders. Later, the hundreds of terracotta statues of the Venerable Saorsach O’Rahilly reverently displayed on O’Rahilly Day are crushed by the falling ceiling of the church (Boland’s blood on one of them prompts excited talk of a second O’Rahilly miracle). Then the attic of the monastery, where the older, retired (and seemingly much less corrupt) brothers are kept in prison-like conditions collapses and causes a fire (this is a fascinatingly constructed scene). Finally, as the comically mobster-like officials in fedoras and overcoats from the Diocesan Investigator’s Office and others arrive to investigate the claims of the miraculous, the entire school comes down.

Then there are the students, most importantly, Finbar Sullivan, whose family has just relocated from Cork to Dublin and plopped him, with the readers, into the unfamiliar school. He serves as our guide, and his parents offer an occasional reprieve from the general bleakness of the quotidian brutality and a schoolyard described as “40 shades of gray.” [21] Unlike the rest of the students, Finbar is full of potential – he speaks fluent Gaelic and French (better than the teachers) and is a talented athlete (in Gaelic football, no less). But he quickly learns the rules of the game, and begins to feign insolence and ignorance (and a preference for soccer, worst of all) in order to fit in with the initially passive, then increasingly violent resistance of the students. As the school falls apart and the rage of the Brothers increases, Finbar, Scully and Lynch begin to take their prankish revenge games in more coordinated directions, organizing “blackouts” to embarrass, provoke and infuriate their superiors while the inspectors are present. The beatings meted out also increase, thus pushing along the collapse.

The blackouts are an important part of the book, in that they give the students of the Brothers of Godly Coercion School for Young Boys of Meager Means some agency in their revenge. In one of the most chilling scenes of the book, Brian Egan takes his revenge for his abuse, leading a blackout of Brother Kennedy, who collapses after being provoked into a hysterical fit of leathering of the students. As he lays dying on the ground, led by Egan, the class continues the Hail Mary he began. The scene is devastating in large part because the reader may find her or himself, as I did, rooting for Kennedy’s death, and thus implicated in the students’ collective shock at their own capacity for punitive cruelty.

If the dark force itself punishing the school is itself impersonal, it has handmaidens in the persons of Matt, Lar and Con of Brannigan Brothers. They appear three times from out of a van, like the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. First, they arrive as Brannigan Brothers Purveyors of Fine Scrap Metals and bearing a docket order to pick up radiators and scrap metals dated one year in the future. The second time, they appear as Brannigan Brothers Electrical Contractors to fix the clock (right before Kennedy’s death) and the third time as Brannigan Brothers Roofing Contractors. Characteristically, only Brother Boland notices that the same three keep coming back, despite the unforgettably Monty Pythonesque# banter of Lar and Con, who quote Marx, Petrarch and Shakespeare while arguing about the relation between corpulence and leadership or the medieval sword factories of Toledo. Actually, there is a fourth appearance from Brannigan Brothers, but this time it is to complete the premature scrap metal pickup at the end of the book – this time right on time to retrieve the rubble and remains of the school.

Finally# , the third and most important thing that makes this book successful, is its sense of justice. It is left purposefully vague what name we ought to call the dark, punishing force. It could be Nemesis, or Karma, or a vengeful God. Kevin’s dedicates the book to “all the kids who never had a chance to answer back,” and quotes Matthew 25:40 at the beginning of the book – “Whatsoever you do unto the least of these my brethren, you do unto me.” But whatever the force is, it is fully committed to punishing the hypocritical crimes of those whose sacred mission was to protect the weak. In the penultimate chapter, the sadness and weight in the walls of Drumgloom and Jezebel Laundry collapse on the perpetrators. “Day after day,” Kevin writes, “for the next three weeks, the country rumbled as one institution after another gave in to the effects of years of corrosive viciousness. Damage was extensive, fatalities and injuries among staff widespread, but not one child was so much as scratched.” [313] The triumphantly just quality of this sentence gave me goosebumps. In it you can find a desperate cry for some honest coming to terms with the magnitude of Catholic abuse in the 20th century. Instead, we have only vacant avoidance and ludicrous half-assed excuses from the Vatican of this world. I prefer Kevin’s version.

If you are interested in asking Kevin a question please leave it in the comment field as he has agreed to answer a few of mine in the coming weeks.

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