The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien (audio)

third policemanThis will win the Pagesofjulia Perplexing and Peculiar Award of 2016, which I have just invented.

Flann O’Brien is one of the pen names of Brian O’Nolan (he also wrote under the name Myles na gCopaleen, or Myles na Gopaleen; Brother Barnabas; etc.). This novel came to me first from this list by the Guardian, and then from my friend Barrett, who bought me O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds when we were traveling in Ireland together several years ago. (I still have not read that one.)

The Third Policeman is not so strictly about bicycles or cycling as the Guardian list had led me to believe; I was quite confused for the first, oh, third or so of the book. Our unnamed narrator is an odd one. He was orphaned, lost a leg, and then returned home from college to find his parents’ pub managed by a man named Divney, who is clearly embezzling from the business. Narrator is quite obsessed with a (fictional) scientist-philosopher named de Selby, about whom he writes a definitive work that he cannot afford to have published. This financial need is set up as his motivation to join in a plot with Divney to rob and murder a neighbor, the wealthy Mathers. After the murder, Divney hides the money, inspiring Narrator to follow him around closely, finally sleeping in the same bed to prevent Divney’s sneaking off to recover the funds alone. Very strange, right? It gets stranger. Narrator meets a figure who is, apparently, the ghost of Mathers; Narrator’s soul speaks up quite suddenly, is named Joe, and becomes an occasional participant in dialog; Narrator hikes off to find a certain police station where he wants to report the theft of a nonexistent watch, thereby seeking clues as to Mathers’s missing money; etc. When we meet the policemen (only two of them, the titular third being absent), we get into the bicycle-related part of the book, but nothing makes any more sense than before. Remember de Selby, Narrator’s obsession? Footnotes throughout discuss his life and work (gradually revealing that he was perhaps less the genius than Narrator would have us think), and, digressively, the lives and petty conflicts of de Selby’s other biographers. WHEW.

The policemen, in turn, are obsessed with bicycles. (Recall this teaser.) Apparently in their world, those who spend too much time on their bicycles become bicycles. You know I loved this part.

This plot, if I may call it that, is every bit as twisted and weird and disconnected as it sounds. Despite all that, it is entertaining, stylish in its own way, and yes, smart. Narrator has a strong voice and personality, strange though he be. The policemen have interesting theories and skills, metaphysical and philosophic. And I have by no means hinted at the central questions of the book yet; there is a final big reveal that makes you think. No spoilers here! and you should avoid them elsewhere to keep The Third Policeman‘s full effect intact.

As far as I can tell, O’Brien gets credit with coining a usage of the word ‘pancake’ for ‘puzzle.’ His policemen use it repeatedly:

It is one of the most compressed and intricate pancakes that I have ever known.

…nearly an insoluble pancake…

A very unnatural pancake. A contrary pancake surely…

And thus my rating: this book is a contrary pancake surely.

The real live narrator, who reads this audiobook for us, is Jim Norton, and he does a splendid job. I felt pulled into a surreal world that I enjoyed and giggled at and was occasionally disturbed by. I’m sure I missed two-thirds at least of the opportunities to interpret this work as a piece of philosophy, itself, but I was utterly entertained. The audio format worked well for letting the zaniness just wash over me. It would not be ideal for close reading, of course – never is – but I really appreciated the experience of this audio introduction to Flann O’Brien, or whatever he calls himself, and I will read more. Don’t be too intimidated – just, don’t expect to understand everything you hear. I’m sure O’Brien has been the subject of a few dissertations, and is probably ripe for another, if you’re feeling ambitious.


Rating: 7 pancakes.

Teaser Tuesdays: The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

This is an exceptionally strange one, friends. I got a little confused. This was recommended as one of The Ten Best Books About Cycling. But early pages (hours) were devoted to an odd friendship, an odder murder and reanimation, and the main character’s obsessive devotion to and criticism of a fictional philosopher.

third policeman The plot remains weird, which I have come to accept is partly the point; and now we have got around to bicycles.

“I do not want to be insidious,” he said, “but would you inform me about your arrival in the parish? Surely you had a three-speed gear for the hills?”

“I had no three-speed gear,” I responded rather sharply, “and no two-speed gear and it is also true that I had no bicycle and little or no pump and if I had a lamp itself it would not be necessary if I had no bicycle and there would be no bracket to hang it on.”

“That may be,” said MacCruiskeen, “but likely you were laughed at on the tricycle?”

“I had neither bicycle nor tricycle and I am not a dentist,” I said with severe categorical thoroughness, “and I do not believe in the penny-farthing or the scooter, the velocipede or the tandem-tourer.”

MacCruiskeen got white and shaky and gripped my arm and looked at me intensely.

“In my natural puff,” he said at last, in a strained voice, “I have never encountered a more fantastic epilogue or a queerer story. Surely you are a far-fetched man. To my dying night I will not forget this today morning.”

I am totally tickled, naturally. Stick around, and I will try to illuminate the weirdness for you in my final review. For now: worthwhile.

Selected Shorts: Pets! (audio)

I just said I wasn’t going to do any more audiobooks any time soon; but this different format (and a road trip) convinced me.

petsThis collection includes six short stories, read by six different narrators, around a theme. The interpretation of “pets” varies, from cats and dogs through a mostly-wild parrot and a few mythical (or horrific) creatures. My feelings about the stories vary a little, too, but overall it was great fun.

In my opinion, we start off less than strongly with T. C. Boyle’s “Heart of a Champion,” read by Isaiah Sheffer, which parodies Lassie’s superdog perfection and the perfect haplessness of little Timmy, before winding up with a different and slightly sinister twist. Mom & I (on the road together from Fort Worth to Houston) agreed that this one was less engaging than the others, and didn’t exhibit the taut packaging of the very finest of short stories. Robertson Davies’ “The Cat That Went to Trinity,” read by Charles Keating, was delightful: a gothic story of academic rivalry, in which a professor at Massey College laments that institution’s inability to keep a college cat. They all go to Trinity. In homage to a certain gothic novel our professor (a specialist) is teaching, a questionable project is attempted. The tone of this story is intense parody of that gothic genre, and is completely hilarious. I enjoyed it very much.

Molly Giles’ “Pie Dance,” read by Kate Burton, presents a change of pace. An woman narrates a visit from her ex-husband’s new wife, and the story that unfolds is complicated, multi-layered, and thought-provoking; a person could listen to (or read) this story several time looking for the little clues. It is a real piece of artistry, and very funny to boot, behaving like a fun and entertaining piece and only creeping up as a more complex one. This story is certainly one of the strongest points of this collection. On the other hand, Ana Menendez’s “Story of a Parrot,” read by Jacqueline Kim, is a different kind of literary undertaking, featuring a Cuban couple relocated to Florida, where they do not get along as the wife dreams of a missed stage career. It is dreamy and gauzy, and though intriguing in many ways, it didn’t come together perfectly for me.

Max Steele’s “The Cat and the Coffee Drinkers,” read by Paul Hecht, was another fun one, told by a former student of Miss Effie’s kindergarten, which is very much a nontraditional classroom. It has its moments of poignancy and the opportunity for serious points, but overall is easily appreciated for its tongue-in-cheek humor.

But the best by far was the story that brought me to this collection in the first place: Gail Godwin’s “St. George,” read in fine form by Jane Curtin. A lonely and socially awkward medieval scholar cracks an egg to discover a tiny but very real dragon. Her attempts to raise it up are a comedy of errors, fanciful and hilarious and perfectly portrayed (of course) by Curtin. This story was riotous and smart, and offered a surprising final solution; it also exemplifies the way a short story can be a nicely encapsulated literary experience in miniature, where structure is so important. I’m glad I sought out “St. George” and will have to keep my eyes open for Godwin.

Each of these stories ran 20-30 minutes, a great format for short listening opportunities and one I’ll look for again. Every one was not equally outstanding, but I am pleased.


Rating: 8 pearls.

(Collections are hard. “St. George” would have gone 8 or 9, and the Lassie story maybe a 6. But it was good fun all around.)

iDiOM Theater presents Clown Bar

I had a romping and hilarious good time seeing the iDiOM Theater’s production of Clown Bar with my Husband and parents. This was my first time at the iDiOM Theater, a tiny, intimate place with just three rows of seats in my section, which allows or necessitates that the players use the audience as part of their stage: awesome.

photo from the Herald

photo from the Herald: click to enlarge

Clown Bar is a work of clown noir, in which a man named Happy – who retired from the funny business to go straight and become a cop – is forced to go back down into the seedy clown underworld to search for his brother’s killer. The play takes place in Clown Bar, a business run by the sinister BoBo. Other literally colorful characters include Petunia (who sidelines as a sex worker), Shotgun (whose name references two meanings of the word), helpful Twinkles, straight-faced Giggles, the terrifying Popo, and of course the unforgettable Blinky Fatale. Also the unfortunately unfunny character Timmy (actually very funny as played), the murdered brother, who we meet in flashback scenes. This is not a play for the whole family: drugs, violence, sexual content including a thoroughly effective burlesque scene (wow!) make for adult entertainment, thank you very much.

I thought this was wonderful stuff. The story is engaging, and I love how it was played: the characters mostly face the audience, making eye contact and interacting with us in lively fashion even as they address one another. They really used the intimate setting. The clown frame was explored not just in fun costumes – although absolutely those – but with mannerisms and theme music. (The music was central, and because this is a small town, we recognized our electrician’s assistant playing the bass.) I jumped off my seat a few times in alarm during this dark and murderous show; but more often I laughed out loud at the antics. Husband and I discussed our favorite characters: I listed pretty much all of them, though, so that is unhelpful.

I commented to Grammy just the other week, when we saw In Your Arms in San Diego, that living in a smaller town means seeing events that are often less polished, less professional Broadway-level work than you see in Houston (or San Diego). And I confess that it was impressive to see In Your Arms, one of those top-level professionally produced plays. But the fact is I really enjoy community-level theatre a great deal, too. Even without the tiny theatre that lets you actually touch the actors, it feels more intimate to see your talented neighbors engaged in a passion that is so entertaining to watch. And I want to be clear: this was not messy amateur work; this was absolutely talented acting, in every role in this play. The fact that it was born closer to home just made it all the more enjoyable to me.

iDiOM Theater has got the goods. I’ll be back. And Clown Bar is worth the time if you can track it down.


Rating: 8 mixed drinks.

Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy: Advice and Confessions on Writing, Love, and Cannibals by Dinty W. Moore

Finely crafted short essays masquerading as self-effacing jokes about writers and writing, in q&a form.

dear mister essay writer guy

Dinty W. Moore (Between Panic and Desire), the editor of Brevity, solicited respected contemporary essayists for questions regarding the form, so he could answer them in Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy: Advice and Confessions on Writing, Love, and Cannibals. An essay riffing on the question at hand accompanies each q&a. The resulting collection of self-deprecating humor includes bits of writing advice as a bonus.

Cheryl Strayed has concerns about her predilection for the em dash: Moore assures her that “em dashes can replace commas, semicolons, colons, the large intestine, and parentheses.” Brenda Miller worries that Facebook “is like one big communal personal essay”; Moore answers with a selection of his status updates over a period of months, which are as sage and instructive as they are hilarious. Roxane Gay wonders about the value of writers writing about writing. Other seekers of wisdom include Judith Kitchen, Phillip Lopate, Brian Doyle and Lee Gutkind. Moore makes room to share a “found essay” left on his voicemail by Mike the Tree Guy, and to list the side effects of memoir, including “nausea, sleep problems, constipation, gas, and swelling of the navel.”

Moore is rarely serious and keeps his tongue in his cheek throughout, but the result is enlightening as well as entertaining. With fewer than 200 pages, Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy is a quick and enjoyable read, to be taken in pieces as small as the reader prefers. Its witty, modest tone belies the artistry of the essays contained, which are exemplars of the short form.


This review originally ran as a *starred review* in the August 28, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 polar bears, naturally.

The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare

I am working on a Maximum Shelf for the first book of Hogarth Shakespeare: The Gap of Time, by Jeanette Winterson. In preparation, naturally, I got myself a copy of The Winter’s Tale, which Winterson retells, so that I could see the connections clearly.

This is one of Shakespeare’s later plays, variously described as a romance, a comedy, or (as Winterson tells it) a play about forgiveness. It is indeed funny at times, although also tragic and pathos-ridden: in an echo of Othello, a jealous royal husband accuses his wife and best friend of being unfaithful together, resulting in deaths and betrayals he will deeply regret. The Winter’s Tale is indeed a more forgiving version, however, as the next generation gets a chance to correct these wrongs and start fresh; in fact, depending on your interpretation, even the jealous king himself gets a second chance.

There is the requisite Shakespearean clown, a lovable character known only as Clown; there is the requisite Shakespearean rogue, who successfully appears to the same people over and over in a variety of disguises. Which leads me to another Shakespearean requisite, the suspension of disbelief, as a father disguises himself successfully from his own son who knows him well, and a lost identity is easily provable after a lapse of 16 years. It’s all in good fun, though: these are accepted devices of the stage.

And fun it is, despite the unhappy scenes along the way. I also enjoyed a strong female character who stands up to the king and does not get damned for it: another shrew, if you will, but less ambiguously represented; this one is clearly a hero. The Winter’s Tale is a pleasing blend of humor and romance in the end, and I am excited to explore Winterson’s take on it. I only wish I could see it performed now that I’ve enjoyed Shakespeare’s telling. He remains a master.


Rating: 7 bears.

Bellingham Theatre Guild presents The Drowsy Chaperone

drowsyOn a rainy night, with a sprained ankle, I set out on my bicycle with Pops to see a local amateur production at a neighborhood theatre. In a word, the production was indeed amateur (which is to say, unpolished), but heartfelt and charming; and the play borders on too silly but was ultimately fun.

The narrator is a middle-aged, socially awkward man, sitting in the darkness of his apartment and dreaming about another world. He speaks directly to the audience about the strengths and downfalls of musical theatre, and puts on a record, the soundtrack to a musical of the 1920’s called The Drowsy Chaperone. The action comes to life in his living room, as the original cast performs the play, interrupted by our host’s interjected comments on the show.

The musical is your standard comedy of errors, involving a wedding that not everyone is supportive of, and includes mistaken identities and the beginnings of new romances. It was pretty cheesy, particularly in its song and dance (even more so than your standard musical!), although the tap dancing was a great addition. But as the story developed, I was more tuned in to the pathos of the narrator and more on board with the general silliness of the show-within-the-show. So while it started a little questionably, by the end I had let myself go into the world of the theatre, and it was rewarding. The performances were less than perfect, but again, this is local, amateur, community theatre: adjust your expectations a little, and be prepared for a good time. I left feeling uplifted by the fun, and will be looking for more Bellingham Theatre Guild performances in the future. Thanks, neighbors.


Rating: 6 gimlets.
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