The Fool of New York City. Michael D. O’Brien. San Francisco: Ignatius Press. 2016.
Those who have read some of Michael D. O’Brien’s novels might think they know what to expect in his most recent work: a devout Catholic struggling with numerous difficulties, or a lapsed or lukewarm Catholic who will eventually reawaken to fervent belief, or the war between faith and the Godless secular Zeitgeist. In this book, however, O’Brien tells a story in which the Catholic Church and Christianity are almost invisible, which is not to say that faith is absent. On the contrary, this novel is entirely grounded in faith in what O’Brien calls “the holiness of existence.”
It also has other O’Brien characteristics, such as dreams, events and encounters that seem to be coincidences but really are not coincidental at all, and, above all, art. The narrator and main character is an artist and art, particularly that of the Spanish painter Francisco de Goya, plays a prominent role. In fact, to understand this novel better, readers who are not familiar with Goya’s works should spend some time contemplating his paintings, particularly The Colossus, The Manikin (also called The Dummy), the portrait of the boy in red called Don Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuñiga, and the “Black Paintings,” including the horrific Saturn Devouring His Son. In Goya O’Brien finds the artist who has rendered on canvas much of what O’Brien wants to put into words.
The novel is narrated in the first person except for the first chapter in which the unnamed narrator speaks to himself in the second person after awakening from a dream on a wintry day in a strange room in an abandoned building in a city he does not recognize as New York. Even the clothes he finds seem to belong to someone else. Worst of all, he has no idea who he is and is perplexed that while he knows the names of things he does not know his own name. He is standing at the window, confused and shivering with cold, when “the giant” comes along, a man approximately eight feet tall. As soon as he sees the narrator in the window he enters the building and finds the room in which the narrator is cowering at his approach and asking himself two questions that give the first hints of O’Brien’s intentions: “Is he the colossus you have always dreaded, always knew would come? Or is he Saturn who devours his children?” The reasons for his dread and his instinctive resort to Goya imagery will gradually emerge.
The giant, who will explain his awesome height as the result of natural heredity, turns out to be an entirely benevolent, generous, and compassionate colossus bearing the somewhat unintimidating name of Billy Revere. He is kindness itself, a guardian angel rather than a monster, and actually considers it his mission in life to help those who are lost and in need. He first takes the narrator to the hospital and then to a police station in a futile effort to find out who he is. The local homeless shelters are all full, so Billy takes him home to his apartment in a condemned building where he has “an arrangement with the landlord” and thereafter devotes himself to aiding the narrator in reclaiming his lost identity. A name does finally surface in the narrator’s consciousness and he announces that he is Francisco de Goya (despite the facts that Goya was born in 1746 and the narrator is a young man in his early to mid-twenties). He is not unaware that this is unlikely to be his true name but thinks that it is at least close to it. “It is meaningful to me though not quite right.” Billy accepts this name at face value for the time being and takes him to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see its collection of Goya’s paintings, which “Francisco” is “fairly sure” he himself painted.
By this time, which is the second chapter, the narrator has abruptly switched to the first person, as though the recollection of a name has provided sufficient clarity to resolve the schism in his mind between a somewhat rational self that is able to describe what is happening and a completely befuddled self that is unable even to recognize itself. He can now describe his amnesia and confusion in the first person and begins to have some vague and fragmentary memories. He says that the portrait of the boy in red is his self-portrait as a child and when he looks closely at the piece of paper being pecked by the bird in the lower left of the painting he thinks he sees not the artist’s signature but the skyline of New York and the numbers 09-11-20-01. Yes, this novel is centered on what happened in New York on September 11, 2001 and how that day is linked to the narrator’s amnesia, but it is much more than the kind of story one might expect about trauma and recovery.
On his website O’Brien has this to say about the ensuing search for “Francisco’s” true identity, a quest that eventually takes him and Billy to Vermont where he finally discovers his real name and begins to recall his past life:
“The trail leads them to numerous adventures, into the shrouded realm of hidden memories, the ironies and complexities of human character and destiny, of catastrophic evil and of redemption. It is a journey into the mysterious dimensions of the mind. It is about trauma and remembrance in America.”
This is all certainly true, but I think the novel is even more fundamentally a symbolic meditation on the mystery at the heart of reality. The faith that is at the heart of the story is a faith in an enigmatic Providence that manifests itself in events that may seem to be mere coincidences or sheer good luck but are actually the weaving of the mysterious tapestry of existence, Goodness at work in a world plagued by evil, a faith that is summed up in the narrator’s thought that “everything is connected.” Why does Billy’s errand to buy a loaf of bread take him past the abandoned building just at the moment when the freezing and utterly bewildered narrator is visible at the window? Why does Billy just happen to have a hidden room in his apartment that is filled with objects evoking memories, some of which are the keys to the narrator’s true identity? Why did Billy also endure a period of similar amnesia years before after a traumatic accident? Is it random or accidental that his last name is Revere, considering that he is devoted to a joyous reverence for life? And then there is the stunning return of the sock. (You will have to read the novel to understand the significance of the sock.)
I do not want to give away too much of the story but I think it is necessary to say more about the self that the narrator reclaims. He is a painter who, before the amnesia, had been heavily influenced by, and even preoccupied with, Goya, mainly for what he sees as the Spaniard’s “immense heart, his compassion” and his efforts to communicate his vision of a freer and better way of life than what he observed in his own world. One of the narrator’s Goya-imitation paintings, called The Scream, depicted a man falling through flames. He says that while the title was Munch the contents were Goya who is, for O’Brien, the archetypical painter for expressing and conveying the evil of September 11, 2001.
I will leave it to the reader to discover exactly what role the events of that day play in this novel. Everyone who was past early childhood on that day has his or her memories, traumas, and flashbacks, particularly those of us who were in New York at the time, and even more particularly those who escaped from the buildings or lost loved ones. O’Brien says nothing about Flight 93 or the airplane that crashed into the Pentagon. Nor does he consider the people in the jets that struck the World Trade Center or the nineteen hijackers or Osama bin Laden. He has narrowed the focus to just two people—the narrator primarily and Billy secondarily, the former a child at the time and the latter a young adult—in order to focus on the enormous psychological effects of the traumatic encounter with catastrophic evil and loss and the difficulty of recovering from them. (There is also a secondary character, the narrator’s maternal grandfather, who has never recovered from the trauma of his experiences in Vietnam.) The novel is in a way more exemplary than historical, as though O’Brien is saying that here is a prime example of what radical evil is like, how it can undermine or even shatter a person’s faith, and how grace can restore the vision of ultimate Goodness.
As O’Brien’s readers know, evil, despair, and death never have the last word, so it is no surprise that the narrator eventually discovers wholeness, healing, and grace in his unexpected encounter with the profound goodness at work in the cosmos, a goodness that is challenged but never defeated by evil. As with his other novels, O’Brien’s gifts as a superb storyteller and creator of characters keep the reader immersed in a tale that is another contribution to what O’Brien considers his own mission in life:
“In all my work I seek to contribute to the restoration of Christian culture. I try to express the holiness of existence and the dignity of the human person situated in an incarnational universe. Each visual image and each work of prose is an incarnation of a word, a statement of faith. At the same time, it asks the questions: What is most noble and eternal in man? Who is he? Why does he exist? And what is his eternal destiny?”
What prevails in this novel is indeed a vision of faith in “the holiness of existence and the dignity of the human person situated in an incarnational universe.” Read it not for a historical account of the events of September 11, which it is not, but for a meditation on Christ’s words to Julian of Norwich, that despite sin and evil “all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
Also available is reviews of “The Father’s Tale,” “Sophia’s House,” “A Cry of Stone,” “Father Elijah,” “Voyage to Alpha Centauri,” “Theophilos,” “Island of the World,” “Plague Journal,” “Eclipse of the Sun,” “Strangers and Sojourners,” and “Elijah in Jerusalem.“