Sunday, December 17, 2006

Coffee, and Coffey

I am just sitting here [at home] on a lazy Sunday afternoon, sipping my coffee, and thinking of Coffey. Leafing through my old old copy of the book.
The Luck of Ginger Coffey. A novel by Brian Moore.
It is one of my all-time favorite Moore novels. I’ve written of this man’s work on Bookpuddle, a few times before. [Like here and here.] He is superb. Even though so many of his books have become movies [most recently, The Statement, starring Michael Caine], Moore [1921-1999] is not nearly as well-known as he deserves to be. I think this is the case with so many great authors.
Yet I can pretty much assure you, when you discover Moore, you unearth treasure.
In the meantime, let me take a few moments to tell you WAY too much about Ginger Coffey…

The story explores one man's heroic attempt to shift position in the world. Ginger Coffey leaves the unpromising economic situation in Dublin to pursue his idea of the Great Canadian Dream. With wife and daughter in tow, he arrives in Montreal in the dead of winter with $15.03 to his name. He has been waiting a long time for this golden opportunity. It soon becomes apparent however, that Canada was not as eagerly waiting for him!
He manages to land a job at The Tribune, but rather than his desired position as journalist, he wallows among the other galley slaves as a lowly proofreader. They collectively suffer under an exploitative and humiliating boss, MacGregor. Because of his radical Irish optimism, Coffey is blind to the emptiness of the editor's promise to promote him to journalist "one day soon". Before that mysterious day which never seems to arrive, Coffey is further forced to augment his meager wages by accepting a job as a diaper delivery man for a company called TINY-ONES© .
Is this the Utopia that he crossed an ocean for? Utopia-shmopia!
But while his Great Canadian Dream is shattering he hears some trans-Atlantic gossip that suggests the situation back in Ireland is even worse! So his choice of Montreal is now an irrevocable one, if for no other reason than it at least affords him some anonymity until he hits the big time. But even this anonymity is brutalized one day when he encounters an old Dublin girlfriend while he is in the full garb of his TINY-ONES© uniform. This is only one of a series of humiliations that Coffey experiences, not the least of which is the fact that his marriage is threatened, and he fears that his wife Vera is involved with an associate of his. His fears are correct... her involvement with the successful journalist Gerry Grosvenor amounts to a sort of clandestine infidelity, but unknown to Ginger, it has not been adulterous. At any rate, soon they are poised for a divorce. But the coup de grace in Ginger's bad luck comes one cold winter night as he stumbles out of a bar after drinking far too much of a mixture of wine and Coca-Cola. While waiting for the bus, he feels the need to unburden his bladder somewhat, and (thinking that he was up against an unoccupied office building) relieves himself in the doorway of one of the biggest hotels in the city! He is arrested for indecent exposure and has his (hilarious) day in court. In this case, the luck of the Irish turns out to be a six-month suspended sentence.
It looks like things could get no worse. Coffey returns home to gather up his things and leave his family. But amazingly, his final courtroom incident has led to some genuine "luck" in the life of Ginger Coffey. A great final chapter shows us the joy that comes from true forgiveness and reconciliation. Ginger Coffey must resign himself to the fact that some very simple things in life (the renewed love of his wife, the steadfast love of his daughter) are like the consolation prizes in his uphill run through life. In the end he celebrates the retention of roughly no more than what he arrived with in Canada... his original $15.03. But, along with that fortune, he now has a new understanding of what makes life important.

This was Moore's first novel with a Canadian setting, published in 1960 after the Irish-born author himself had spent twelve years living in Canada. He was personally familiar with what it is like to be an immigrant emerging from Montreal's Dorchester Street bus terminal into the same sort of frozen slush, snow and gloom that Ginger Coffey experienced. And Moore's interest in this novel seems to be an investigation into the ways in which public myths (the Great Canadian Dream) reflect and encourage private fantasies (I'm going to get rich when I get there). Coffey's conclusion was that "life was the victory... going on was the victory." That the true challenge and test in life resides in the private domain, in intimate relationships. It is for this reason that the central drama of the story, which is intertwined with Ginger's search for wealth and public recognition in the New World, is the collapse of his marriage to Vera. Moore deals with these serious themes in a novel that is very light to read and even "comic" at most points. Ginger Coffey is an unforgettable character... the quintessential well-intentioned optimist/dreamer.

You can buy your own cup o’ Coffey right here.
Brief Brian Moore bio.
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1 comment:

Paul said...

Try "Skinny Dip" by Carl Hiaasen- a good read !