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[ Aloysius the Great. O'Brien, John Maxwell. United States: Propertius Press. July 2020. 332 pages. ISBN: 978-1-71689-483-1]
What might your reaction be if I told you that an 80-year old, retired university professor living in small town Connecticut is channeling the spirit of Irish author, James Joyce?
Well, it's true! After reading the story I can't help but think something remarkable and supernatural is going on here. Those in the know make the claim that the only chapter worth reading in James Joyce's Ulysses is the 70-page chapter known as the "Ithaca episode," the penultimate section. It's also informally known as the "catechism chapter." The reader can rest assured that chapters 20 & 33 of O'Brien's novel are significant, but unlike Joyce, this author's entire story is worth reading.
Aloysius the Great is the timeless tale of Aloysius Gogarty, a young alcoholic American professor, pressured into becoming resident director of his colleges study-abroad program in England. He leaves the United States full of apprehension and resentment of the task before him. He is also disturbed at having to leave behind a young lady he has become obsessed with. While in England, Gogarty finds himself on a runaway roller-coaster of rebellious students, drugs, sex, and academic politics. As he continues to court his lady friend from afar, his drinking spirals out of control. Gogarty gets help in coping with his problems from an Oxford counterpart who is a wickedly witty and steadfast companion. They consume epic quantities of alcohol while concocting outlandish schemes to address these challenges. Gogarty not only survives the cacophony of events, but emerges on the other side as a hero and crowns his achievements by coming to grips with his alcoholism.
O'Brien's novel is a powerful Rabelaisian romp fest that at first read can be a companionate volume to Joyce's Ulysses. They should actually be read together, if you have the time, to get the most out of this book. After the first reading of this novel I could not stop thinking of the Irish folk song, "Seven Drunken Nights." Even if I had never read any of Joyce's works, this story is a fine, well-crafted character novel bubbling with clever dialogue and humor. If the reader happens to be Joycean aficionado like myself, it becomes a treasure chest of Joycean puns, saucy dialogue, comedic relief, and many allusions to Ulysses. That's why chapters 20 & 33 are so important to this work.
As a Joycean knock-off, the author definitely achieved his goal and was enormously competent at it, as shown by the following scenes in the novel. At Ensign Ewart's Pub, the Scottish barkeep is giving Aloysius advice on whiskey:
"Now, let me tell you something about whiskey. It's like a woman: it's all a matter of taste. I can give you something smooth with a long, round finish; something spicy with a peaty aftertaste; or something soft with a heathery, honey flavor. What suits your mood today?"
This Scottish barkeep further advises Gogarty on the wisdom of when you know you've had enough to drink, which is hilarious:
"Me dear departed father once told me, he said, 'Billy boy, every man has his own God-given quota when it comes to drink, and you'll know when yours has been reached. That'll be the crossroads. Either you'll keep sucking it up like a sponge or you'll step back and watch the other laddies blow themselves up with it.' I reached my limit seven years and thirteen days ago."
"How did you know your time was up?"
"When it dawned on me I was allergic to the stuff."
"Allergic? How did you know you were allergic to alcohol?"
"Because when I overdid it, I kept breaking out in handcuffs."
"I choke on a mouthful of Devchars, spitting some of it on the bar. He wipes up the mess cheerfully, pleased with my reaction."
I could log many more pages of this kind of Joycean humor but it would spoil all the fun for the reader. I highly recommend this novel for the Joycean aficionado as well as for the general reader looking for a good page-turning story with lots of punch. It is the kind of novel to be read twice, or even thrice, to pick up all manner of nuances, puns and stylistic allusions missed in the first reading. For this, a previous reading of Ulysses would be helpful.
[John Maxwell O'Brien is an emeritus professor of history (Queens College) who has written numerous articles on ancient history, medieval history, and the history of alcoholism. His bestselling biography, Alexander the Great: The Invisible Enemy (Routledge), has been translated into Greek and Italian, and he authored the article on alcoholism in the Oxford Classical Dictionary. Professor O'Brien's second life has been devoted to his first love, creative writing, and he has published a variety of poems and short stories in literary journals. Aloysius the Great is his debut novel and was inspired by James Joyce's Ulysses.]