South Boston’s hardscrabble history and abundant local color make it fertile ground for fiction, but it’s often done a disservice by stories that rely on garish caricatures and lazy stereotypes. Thankfully, “Broken Irish,’’ the Southie-based second novel by local writer Edward J. Delaney, treats its strong ensemble of characters with dignity, even as they plunge headlong into tragedy.
Set on the cusp of the millennium, the novel depicts a community in upheaval. The institutions that bound the neighborhood together are crumbling, as is the siege mentality that long kept Southie an isolated, Irish enclave. Whitey Bulger is gone, but the emerging sexual abuse scandal in the Boston archdiocese shows that the shepherds were, in some cases, no better than the wolves. “Southie,’’ according to one character, “was like a purgatory from which many could simply not escape.’’
Thirteen-year-old Christopher Coogan has a vague notion of escaping his claustrophobic surroundings, but to him even the Back Bay is a distant and forbidding realm; the Fort Point Channel may as well be a moat. Christopher is a quiet, sullen kid, deeply wounded by his father’s death in the Persian Gulf War and scarred by abuse at the hands of Father John, his parish priest. His mother Colleen is a basket case, so paralyzed by grief and uncertainty that she helplessly watches her son disengage from life, with nothing to offer him but wary silence. It’s only when she finds evidence that implicates Father John as the cause of Christopher’s turmoil that she becomes animated, desperately seeking to break the Catholic Church’s formidable code of silence. Left to his own devices, Christopher takes it upon himself to serve as protector to his 16-year-old crush, Jeanmarie, whose beauty and willful naïveté have left her vulnerable to exploitation by a shady fashion photographer.
Above all this looms Terrance Rafferty, an accomplished businessman who enlists a writer to pen a vanity biography that chronicles his rise out of the Old Colony projects and into high society. Rafferty is Delaney’s most thrilling creation, a blend of poise, insight, and ruthlessness that recalls Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter. He too is motivated by the idea of escape. In a riveting and often shockingly savage narrative, Rafferty claws his way into the Brahmin elite, shedding the accent and habits of his common upbringing. Despite making it out of Southie, Rafferty discovers that living well isn’t enough to obliterate his link with the past - or satisfy his thirst for revenge against an old rival. “I was in my early forties and feeling something that was not nostalgia as much as an epiphany,’’ he admits, “that this place was as deeply wrought in me as a chromosome, a gene, my flesh itself.’’
The Winter Hill Gang lurks in the shadows throughout “Broken Irish,’’ but Delaney chooses not to confront it head on, never exaggerating its prominence in the lives of everyday Southie residents. It’s whispered about, and only occasionally romanticized, as when Jeanmarie’s dim boyfriend Bobby takes a job at the South Boston Liquor Mart with the misguided hope of making mob connections. Though the Rafferty arc has its share of pulp, Delaney largely eschews the sensationalism of genre fiction. Instead, he focuses on relatable, human drama that makes the novel and its characters truly indelible.
“Broken Irish’’ is a satisfying novel steeped in verisimilitude, likely owing to Delaney’s background as a journalist and documentarian. He cares about details and understands their importance to the larger themes of loss, desperation, and betrayed loyalties. His characters are not merely vehicles for ideas, but rather fully realized, familiar people, whose failures are heartbreakingly authentic.Michael Patrick Brady is a freelance writer living in South Boston. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.