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NOT A GREAT NOVEL, BUT IT'D MAKE FINE FILM.

Byline: David Mehegan Boston Globe

Neil Jordan is one of those rare crossover artists - John Sayles is another - who started out as a writer of stories, then shifted to film, yet remains a fashioner of words and sentences. His fame rests on his great film "The Crying Game," which he wrote as well as directed. But his fiction reminds us that language remains the sinew and bone of his artistic corpus.

Those bones and sinews are deeply Irish in a way that reminds one of other contemporary Irish writers - Colm Toibin, Colm McCann, Patrick McCabe, even Patrick O'Brian to a degree - in his tussling with a few basic themes: the unbearability of a tiny conventional community, the struggle of conflicting loyalties, the impulse to leave home followed by the irresistible impulse to return, and most strongly, the struggle to come to terms with Himself, the Old Man, one's own father.

In "Nightlines," Jordan's compelling short novel, young Donal Gore, an Irish volunteer with the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, has been captured by the fascists. Awaiting execution in a monastery used as a jail, he reflects upon his history. His father, of Protestant background, had fought in the Irish War of Independence of 1916-1921. When the Free State Treaty was signed with Britain and the country partitioned, the independence movement split into pro- and anti-Treaty factions. Civil war followed, in which his father had sided with the Treaty and become an official in the government - a traitor in the eyes of the die-hard Republicans.

Donal's mother had died when he was a small child. His father, given no name in this book, hires a young woman from Sligo as a piano teacher for his son. Over time, both the teen-age boy and his father fall in love with Rose, who seems to be a fantasy object for both of them, with no very clear character nor origin. Apparently unaware that there has been a tryst between Donal and Rose, the widower asks her to marry him and she accepts. Appalled at the thought of living in the house with his father and stepmother after he had known her sexually, Donal joins an IRA brigade that volunteers in Spain.

Donal is still a prisoner when general war breaks out in Europe, a war in which Ireland remained neutral. A German officer arranges his release on an ambiguous condition that becomes clear only when Donal returns to Ireland: that he act as a go-between with radical Republicans intending to buy arms from the Nazis and act as a fifth column in Ireland.

To side with the Republican faction - the group he had nominally joined in part to spite his father - would ally him with the Nazis, but to betray that side would ally him with his father and the Treaty regime that the IRA viewed as a betrayer of the Republican cause. This tangle of conflicting loyalties intensifies when Donal returns home and finds that his father has suffered a stroke, cannot speak and seems to be catatonic. He and Rose, now his stepmother and his father's caretaker, resume their sexual relationship in the belief that the elder Gore is unaware of the liaison taking place practically before his eyes.

Eventually, of course, instructions arrive from his German contact. They entail a rendezvous with radical Republicans and a German submarine on the western coast. Donal cannot avoid a decision. "Deceit," he reflects, "had become my element. Betrayal, a kind of destiny. The choices led to nothing but betrayal, and any way out was by way of betrayal."

"Nightlines" has a surface potboiler level, as "The Crying Game" did, but the raw thematic material of which the story is fashioned transcends the little country and its familiar history. Though Jordan provides a primer in a short introduction for American readers and a glossary for such terms as "The Free State" and "the Civil War," this is not a historical novel: It is about division, and longing for union, between younger and elder. The same theme animated the title story in Jordan's collection "Night in Tunisia." Despite the political elements in "Nightlines," it is apparent that Donal has no interest in politics. He left home and went to Spain as part of the Freudian sexual power struggle with his father, with whom he wishes to be united even as he grapples with him.

The silence of the stricken father ironically makes possible the only closeness with his son. Pushing the old man in a wheelchair along the promenade in their seaside hometown of Bray, near Dublin, the narrating Donal tells us, "the silence brought a kind of peace. I could feel the occasional twitch of his arm and felt glad he was alive. I saw the line of the horizon gradually merge with the cloud and saw the rain coming toward us. I sat until the last possible moment, savouring the illusion of a union." This closeness recapitulates the memory behind the title. The small boy Donal and his father had put out nightlines on the beach: baited fishhooks on a line between rods set in the sand at low tide. When the tide came in and went out again, hooked fish would be waiting. Carrying out this ritual together, gathering the bounty from beyond the constraints of the stony little island, father and son kept silence between them, did not speak and did not need to.

The end of the story combines historical and familiar mythic elements. The German submarine recalls the landing of Sir Roger Casement in 1916, in a similar attempt to create a fifth column. The denouement by and in the western sea recalls the film "Into the West," in which a magical horse reconciles a family of tinkers, and possibly even Sayles' recent film "Roan Inish." Just as it did in Donal's dimly remembered childhood, the sea in "Nightlines" provides peace and reconciliation in a final scene that could be a dream or a fantasy.

Whatever its limitations as fiction, one can easily imagine a powerful film version of "Nightlines," and surely Jordan had film in his mind as he wrote it. (It could be called "A Tide Runs Through It.") That is the beauty of being both novelist and filmmaker: The movie rights are not difficult to negotiate. And that creative synthesis may be the union in which the two sides of Neil Jordan the artist are reconciled.

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Photo Neil Jordan's fiction reminds us that language remains the sinew and bone of his artistic corpus. Michael Owen Baker/Daily News
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Title Annotation:Review; L.A. LIFE
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jan 7, 1996
Words:1097
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