Review: ‘The Last Storyteller’ by Frank Delaney

I tell you this, the most famous story in Ireland, just to prove to you that we have to be careful when we use the word ‘mythology’ — because it might also be history. And what’s the most important thing about history? The most important thing is: history is what’s happening to us all the time, and it happens again and again. To each and every one of us. (96)

thelaststoryteller_delaney_bookcoverI never pass up a chance to read a Frank Delaney book. Ever since I read “Ireland: A Novel” for the first time about eight years ago, I loved his narrative style and how he combines his narratives with Ireland’s myths and legends.

“The Last Storyteller” is no exception.

Delaney’s 2012 book follows story collector Ben MacCarthy through the violent events of Ireland in 1956. With poverty, corruption and a small armed rebellion rattling the countryside, Ben falls in with an Irish Republican Army sympathizer named Jimmy Bermingham — “thin like a dancer; quicksilver flicks and twitches; seedy hint of the gambler.” Around the same time his former wife and true love Venetia Kelly returns to Ireland with her abusive new husband, a performer by the name of Gentleman Jack. This time, Ben is determined not to lose Venetia again and will do everything to get her back. In his memoir to his twin children, Ben recounts his violent past and his journey to create a brighter future.

The pace of Delaney’s narrative threw me off at first. Most of the chapters are fairly short, averaging about three pages. Sometimes the next chapter will go back in time, go forward in time or a reprieve from the current storyline. The first chapter starts off with Ben visiting John Jacob Farrell O’Neill. Then the second chapter jumps to after Ben’s visit with O’Neill, and the third is back to O’Neill’s cottage.

But the fourth chapter addresses the jaggedness: “In advance I ask your forgiveness for a somewhat jagged beginning to this, the final phase of my confessio. … it is deliberate — because this is a sharp-edged and dark side of my life that I have to tell” (9). The time jumps between some of the chapters smooths out slightly after the initial four chapters, and I began to understand the pace that Ben (or Delaney) took through this confessio.

These various accounts of my life will be sealed until long after my death. You may publish them if you wish, but all the sealing and all the publishing, all the open confession, and all my breast-beating — none of that will undo anything. (288)

What drew me to this story (aside from Delaney writing it) was the era: mid-1950s Ireland. I didn’t know much about the IRA and the events of that time, aside from reading “The Sniper” in my sophomore English class. Though I can’t claim to be an expert on that time, I have more of a feel for this era after reading this book.

I enjoyed Delaney’s references “old black-and-white gangster film.” This helped put Ben’s dealings with the IRA and Jimmy into a familiar perspective (I do live in Chicago now, after all). Ben’s description of Jimmy the first time he met him draws into that theme: “He had a camel coat on him that day, draped across his shoulders like a cloak, brown velvet tabs on his collar, and a pink shirt and a pink striped tie. … in his shiny black shoes, socks with clocks on them like a bandleader, and the sultry dark eyes of Marlon Brando.” (11)

Nearly every encounter with Jimmy and anything related to the IRA cause provides some sort of gangster mention. One in particular that jumps out in my mind is when Ben is surveying the deaths of three men. When reading this passage, I thought back to the gangster bus tour I took a few months ago when my parents were visiting.

Three lumps of dead human flesh. Odd how they’re bent out of shape. How will they straighten them for burial? Who will do that? This is like Life magazine in Chicago. I’m seeing it in black and white. Like the gangster movies.” (291)

Perhaps my favorite chapter in the whole book was 119, when Ben puts in his bid for remorse being the most interesting emotion. It is a day or so after he surveys the bodies from the passage above.

A mile later, a sledgehammer slammed into my heart, stomach, and chest. Actual pain. I stuck the brake to the floor and pulled to one side. As though hit by a sudden squall, my face became a panel of cold sweat. My bowels exploded. No control. Instant and foul mire beneath me, and I began to wet myself as freely as a faucet.

“An anguish, in the form of stabbing pain, entered my heart through my face, and left indelible wrinkles. People have laugh lines: do we also have pain lines? I do; I got them that day. My hands hadn’t left the steering wheel. I didn’t think I could detach them. The car sat on a fortunately wide verge. Condensation whitened the windows.

“I couldn’t lean back; my body refused it. It would be years before I ceased sitting tensely. And my mind replayed that gaping ‘Chicago’ scene, that black and white film. (296-297)

The whole chapter is powerful. Never have I felt remorse as strong as Ben’s, and I hope I never will. Throughout Ben’s memoir to his children, you can sense the remorse from page one. He hints at events yet to come, and I found myself wondering which chapter would reveal what he had done.

What I loved most of all is that this book showed just how much stories can affect a person’s life, and why storytelling can be vital. Stories changed and shaped Ben’s life for the better. And stories certainly have changed and shaped my life as well.

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