Unholy Living And Half Dying by Sean O’Faolain, 1947
The magic trick:
Offering religious criticisms of some merit, but putting them in the mouth of a deeply flawed character
We close our strange week of Sean O’Faolain stories with the exact kind of story that makes me call it a strange week. Sometimes it seems each day’s feature was written by a different author, and certainly this one stands out the most from the batch to me as being the most unlike a not-very-alike set. It’s to his credit, I think, as an author. It speaks to his versatility.
These stories don’t vary widely in terms of quality. They’re all very good. They just deal with different settings, different points of view, and different tones.
“Unholy Living And Half Dying” finds an aging protagonist confronting his lifestyle of drink, gambling, and surface pleasures. And in doing so he also reserves some strong criticism for the church.
It’s interesting because it’s not a straight religious critique, as you might expect find in a collection of Irish short stories from the mid-20th century. Now the critiques he makes, if you’re like me, may ring with some truth. But because they’re put in the mouth of a protagonist who we clearly see as being flawed and floundering, the criticisms become complicated.
Yes, they do seem to have some merit. He makes some good points. But it’s hard for the reader to agree with much else about his life. Clearly, he doesn’t have it all figured out here. So maybe he should reconsider his stance on religion? And if he should reconsider and we agreed with him, maybe we should reconsider ours too?
It’s a conundrum.
And that’s quite a trick on O’Faolain’s part.
In the match-light he saw her pale eyes staring up at him in terror from the pillow; he saw her hollowed cheeks; the white beard on her chin; her two pigtails tied with bits of red wool. The match burned his fingers. Through the dark he heard her whisper, ‘Mr. Cardew, Im dying.’
He was so frightened that he immediately lit another match. He was even more frightened by what she replied when he asked her if he could call in one of her friends: ‘God help us,’ she panted. ‘Friends how are ye? I haven’t a friend to wet me lips. Not a friend. In the world.’
He raced down the stairs. One of his pals was a doctor; he went up and examined her, soothed her, came down, said there was nothing much wrong with her except old age and perhaps a touch of indigestion, and ordered two aspirins and a hot-water bottle on her stomach. They made her comfortable for the night and the party went home, heads down to the rain, shouting commiserations all round.
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