Heart of The Old Country BOOK review [Tim McLoughlin]

Book Reviews
Heart of The Old Country BOOK review [Tim McLoughlin]
Apr 1, 2001, 00:13

HEART OF THE OLD COUNTRY By Tim McLoughlin; Akashic Books, 2001

Nope. I just can't buy in. Tim McLoughlin's first novel, Heart of the Old Country isn't convincing in terms of dialogue, action/reaction dynamics, motivations deep or shallow. They just don't seem real. At the same time it's not especially stylized enough to possibly be considered an abstraction, expressionistic, or surrealistic reverie.

The story is set in contemporary Brooklyn, in an enclave of lower middle class white folk, documenting the neighborhood's erstwhile well-defined (in terms of ethnicity mainly) subculture in severe decline, perhaps sounding its nicotine-stained death rattle. The remaining inhabitants are rapidly losing a war of attrition to a shifting population of more recent immigrants, and white-flight by relatives, co-workers, and onetime neighbors to 'burbland. The main characters are 19 year old Mike, his widowed dad, their colleagues and employers at a Mob-affiliated car service, and a couple of broads. Their predicament, as pertains to the plot here, is the severely limited courses of action left open to them, amounting to little more than ill-fated lives of boredom, a lack of achievement and a pathetic death. Options include dead-end jobs, chump-change hood-dom, the Mob if they're lucky. McLoughlin has done an excellent job of sketching this situation in minute, vivid detail, and creating a genuinely depressing mise en scene.

But it's difficult to really care about the main characters or feel sympathy for their plight. They are drawn two-dimensionally, just cartoons of congenital losers. What's missing is any sense of their motivation or the events and circumstances that prompted them to make the choices they have. And poignancy and empathy comes from understanding that there were choices, what those choices were, why the wrong ones were made, and how it could have all turned out for the best. None of that happens in the course of Heart of the Old Country.

Mike is an excellent case in point. He bemoans the self-imposed limitations he sees his friends, father and girlfriend wholeheartedly embracing, their lack of nobility, sense of adventure, possibility for change and progress. Having enrolled in college in Manhattan—just minutes from his house apparently—he can't wait to drop out and backpedal from this immediate opportunity to start building a future of his own design. Appalled at the predictability of his family and friends' milieu, he makes no serious effort to even investigate what his fellow students might have to offer. And no substantial explanation is ever provided.

The denouement of Heart of the Old Country comes when Mike agrees to become a runner for a minor Mob boss, is ambushed and escapes but holds onto the goods, pretending they were lost in the attack; then gets caught. A lot of suspense and high drama ensues but when the situation is resolved Mike emerges utterly unchanged in any meaningful way.

Heart of the Country echoes much of classic Hubert Selby in its depiction of lives filled with petty and not so petty indignities and transgressions, marked by slim hopes and overwhelmingly bad odds. But where Selby creates enormous poignancy by showing the series of circumstances pushing characters towards a bad end he also indicates to his readers that there are roads not taken and that choices have been made; just the wrong choices. McLoughlin has not and thus lacks that kind of emotional wallop.

-Howard Wuelfing

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