Tarry Flynn, a young man in his mid 20s in 1930s staunchly Catholic Ireland, spends his days arguing with his mother, tending his smallholding and talking about girls with his friend, Eusebius...
He considers himself a cut above the local men with their simple outlooks and base desires. Tarry, you see, fancies himself as a poet. He’s tortured by his mystical, poetic thoughts. But, in the spirit of full disclosure, he’s also consumed by lust. He might consider himself a writer frustrated by his lowly surroundings, but he can’t deny the flesh. His conversations with Eusebius centre on one topic and one topic alone:
“Be jabus! Did ye see her?”
“I did. She has no fella as far as I know.”
If it wasn’t for Tarry’s ridiculousness, this might be a difficult book for the post-#MeToo readers. For Tarry and his friends - indeed, every man in the County Cavan village - are obsessed with the local women. Tarry, perhaps led into unrealistic expectations by his poetry idols and their gushings about the Muse, is perpetually disappointed by the local women’s colourless faces and stocky figures, and yet also driven wild by sexual longing.
And he isn’t the only one. At the beginning of the novel it becomes apparent that ‘The Mission’ - a travelling evangelical group - has arrived in the village church to deliver lessons on virtue and chastity. Tarry drily observes Petey Meegan “the crooked old bachelor...hurrying off up Kerley’s hill on his way to hear more about sex.” As the Mission closes in a final Mass, Tarry is watching his neighbours again. Meegan “was thumping his breast and looking up towards the coloured window with an ecstatic gaze.” He then enquires about Mary, Tarry’s sister, to their mother. “The Missioners must have shook him up,” she says. Tarry is horrified at the 20 year age gap; his mother insists that “girls can’t be too stiff these days.” The hypocrisy of Tarry’s horror at Meegan’s desires, his mother’s matter-of-factness, the earthiness of Mary’s conversation with her friend (“Could you go to bed with an auld fella like that?”) is devastatingly funny. Like all good coming-of-age novels (although, at 27, Tarry is old enough to know better) the humour comes from the reader’s recognition of Tarry’s pitiful inadequacies.
But Tarry Flynn is more than a humorous portrayal of the insignificant trials and tribulations of a rural community. It’s also a sharp critique of the Catholic church and the power it wields over the lives of country people. And yes, it may be an unsentimental portrayal of rural life - Tarry’s fields are small and poor and don’t yield much other than reeds and stones - but it’s also a compelling ode to the beauty in the everyday. There are some lyrical passages of breathtaking loveliness amongst the colourful characters and Tarry’s vain, petty thoughts and plans. His imagination turns the neighbours’ dirty windows into “stained glass” and the weeds that choke the ditches into “rich beauty...life pouring out in uncritical abundance.”
Tarry Flynn is a book I go back to time and time again. It’s a modern classic, with a mastery of style that never fails to astonish. Kavanagh swings with apparent ease from hilarious to profound within the same paragraph; the sublime to the ridiculous sitting sentences apart. But I think what I really love about it is the way that it explores rural places being both our passions and our prisons. The writer John McGahern tells a story of Kavanagh saying to him, “I love that grass. I’ve known it since I was a child. I often wondered if I’d be different if I had been brought up to love better things.” But we love (tolerate? tolerate affectionately?) the places that we love, even though they can be hard, uncompromising, suffocating, even. It isn’t often an active choice. If you feel that way about the rural place you grew up or the place you live now, then Tarry Flynn will really resonate with you.