My Uncle Jim died last week. I was in the States at the time, and just about made it back in time for the funeral. He’d been ill for some time, so everyone had time to prepare, Jim included. I don’t know if anyone ever dies happy, but he’d made his peace with himself, the world and his God.
He was my father’s younger brother, and a good, good man. A gentleman according to the traditional meaning, and also in that he combined being gentle with being a man. He was a terrific hurler in his youth, no mean accolade when you hail from Wexford, and it was stirring as it was poignant to see his old comrades turn out to present a guard of honour on our way into the cemetery. You need to be a man of real courage and heart to prosper on the Wexford and Waterford hurling fields, a man who can combine ferocity and style. But when he left the field he left the ferocity behind him, and the style he brought to the game was intrinsic to his character.
He was well-read and travelled, but he always had the grace to wear his learning lightly. He had a keen intelligence, and served for many years as Head Designer with Waterford Glass. In his spare time he liked to paint and write. Perhaps that’s why he took an interest in me.
In my early teens, everyone I knew was aware that I liked to write – bad poetry and English essays, for the most part, although Jim wasn’t fussed about their quality. Even though no one I knew ever ridiculed my vague ambition to be a writer, Jim was the first person to take it seriously, to engage with me with the kind of seriousness every young writer craves, whether or not he or she realises it at the time. We had many long conversations, about books and writers for the most part, but wide-ranging enough to take in politics, travel, sport and pretty much anything that came up. He probably thought I was precocious, but he never said. After our first such conversation, when he was visiting us in Sligo, he took himself off into town and returned with a battered second-hand copy of ULYSSES, the only one he could find in the entire town, and in a tobacconists at that.
I still have it, of course, although I’ve yet to read it through despite a few attempts. What mattered to me at the time was that Jim thought I was in some way kin to both himself and Joyce, that I was a member of some vaguely defined brotherhood of letters. It has been, in writing terms, my lucky charm ever since; it’s on the desk before me as I write this.
I was lucky enough, many years later, to pay him the tribute I believed he deserved. Jim travelled to Dublin for the launch of my first book, EIGHTBALL BOOGIE, and in my speech I recounted the tale of ULYSSES and its being my lucky charm. People laughed when I said I hadn’t read it, possibly out of relief given that most of them hadn’t read it either, but the point I wanted to make was that Jim could have given me a copy of CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, or MOBY DICK, or NODDY GOES TO MARKET – it wasn’t the book itself that mattered, or its author, but the gift of it, the gift of collusion and inspiration and being taken seriously.
Today I know that all I have in common with James Joyce is that we’re both Irish and our books are printed on paper. I don’t know what Jim made of my writing crime fiction – his tastes were a little more esoteric, and he favoured Hemingway above all others. But he understood at the time that it was in words that my greatest hope of happiness lay, and took the time, effort and patience to ensure that I was always, regardless of my regular digressions in life, travelling towards fulfilling that ambition.
It’s hard not to be selfish at a time like this, to hoard your precious memories of someone who meant so much to you, to burnish them into something unique. But that would be unfair to Jim, who was equally fond of all his brother’s sons and daughters, and who was loved equally in return. He had a great rapport with my mother too, but then he was a charming rogue when the mood took him, with a devilish twinkle in his eye.
But it’s my father, of course, who will miss him most. They were lucky enough to be friends as well as brothers, and team-mates, from a very early age, and it was intoxicating to hear Jim tell stories about my father from when they were boys and young men. We know our father better for knowing Jim, for he was a marvellous story-teller, and for that alone we will always be in his debt. He left behind the first draft of a manuscript called WHEN WE WERE YOUNG, and he has bequeathed it to me to do with it what I will, and I hope to be one day a good enough writer to do it justice.
Beannacht Dé leat, Jim.
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.