Book Review: Guests of the Nation, by Frank O’Connor

Last night I finished reading Guests of the Nation, by Frank O’Connor.  This book was first published in 1931 and, if you believe the prices on Amazon, is sort of hard to get a hold of now.  The title story is probably familiar to most people: it is one of the best anti-war stories in the English language.  It is transcendent, and after reading it, I always feel like the narrator who says at its end, “And anything that happened to me afterwards, I never felt the same about again.”  But although the story “Guests of the Nation” transcends all references to the time and politics O’Connor actually wrote about, none of the remaining 14 stories collected in Guests carry quite the same timelessness or impact.  But despite that, the book is quite good, with a few hidden gems.

Although all of the stories in Guests revolve around the Irish War of Independence, the only story that actually recaptures some of the humor and irony of the title story is “Machine-gun Corps in Action”.  In it, the narrator and his friend come across a short vagabond that happens to own a machine gun.  Apparently this guy has been cutting a swath across Ireland with his gun, generally raising hell wherever he goes.  One day the narrator and his friend come across this fellow and then send him on his way, not knowing he’s wanted by just about everyone in Ireland.  So the rest of the story details how they attempt to capture him and get his gun.  They fail repeatedly, and ultimately it’s up to the little vagabond’s wife to bring him home.

Like most of the stories in Guests, “Machine-gun Corps in Action” is written from the first person point of view, and demonstrates just what a wonderful ear O’Connor had for voice — and language, brevity, and everything else an amazing story-teller should know.  The story begins:

When Sean Nelson and I were looking for a quiet spot in the hills for the brigade printing press we thought of Kilvara, one of the quietest of all the mountain hamlets we knew.  And as we drove down the narrow road into it, we heard the most ferocious devil’s fusilade of machine-gun fire we had heard since the troubles began.

[. . .]

We seemed to be in the very heart of the invisible battle when suddenly the firing ceased and a little ragged figure — looking, oh, so unspectacular against that background of eternal fortitude — detached itself from behind a little hillock, dusted its knees, shouldered a strange-looking machine-gun, and came towards us.  It hailed us and signaled us to stop.  I pulled up the car, and Nelson lowered his rifle significantly.  The little ragged figure looked harmless enough.  God knows, and we both had the shyness of unprofessional soldiers.

Doesn’t that make you want to keep reading?  Besides “Guests of the Nation” and “Machine-gun Corps in Action”, the stories “Nightpiece with Figures”, “Laughter”, “Jo”, and “The Procession of Life” are also wonderful.  In all, the book is a great piece of fiction about the internal and external conflicts of war.  If you liked Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, you’ll appreciate O’Connor’s Guests of the Nation.

Summer Reading: On a final note, it’s summer time, which means summer reading.  I figure there are about 13 weeks of summer, and I generally read about one book a week if I’m lucky.  I like to read literary fiction, which isn’t your typical summer fare, but I’ve already put my summer reading list together.  Have you?

  1. Lancelot, by Walker Percy
  2. Ancient Evenings, by Norman Mailer
  3. Rabbit is Rich, by John Updike
  4. Rabbit at Rest, by John Updike
  5. Reservation Blues, by Sherman Alexie
  6. Lady Oracle, by Margaret Atwood
  7. A Man of the People, by Chinua Achebe
  8. The Satanic Verses, by Salman Rushdie
  9. The Last Temptation of Christ, by Nikos Kazanktzakis
  10. Ramses: The Son of Light, by Christian Jacq
  11. Going After Cacciato, by Tim O’Brien
  12. One Writer’s Beginning, by Eudora Welty
  13. Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA, by Brenda Maddox

I think this list is a little ambitious, and I doubt that I’ll finish it all by September.  But if you’ve read any of these, I’d be happy to hear about it in the comments below.  Also, if you have any advice on prioritizing the books in this list, I’d be happy to hear that, too.  Right now I’m working on One Writer’s Beginnings, by Eudora Welty.

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