cover image The Salesman

The Salesman

Joseph O'Connor. Picador USA, $24 (400pp) ISBN 978-0-312-19998-2

A senseless act of violence leads to a bizarre sequence involving retribution and redemption in Irish author O'Connor's (Cowboys and Indians) stunning fourth novel. Middle-aged Dubliner Billy Sweeney addresses his first-person narration to his daughter Maeve, who is in a coma after being beaten by several young thugs during a robbery of the store where she works. The novel opens as Sweeney anxiously awaits the verdict at the trial, which renders only partial justice after the escape of the crime's instigator, Donal Quinn. Heretofore glib and resourceful (""A good salesman will swear to things he knows not to be true""), the heartbroken Sweeney quickly targets tough-guy Quinn, resolved to track him through the streets of Dublin. Devastated by the recent death of his estranged wife, Grace, and stricken by the potential loss of his daughter, Sweeney goes over the top and kidnaps Quinn, imprisoning him in the backyard of his isolated Dublin home. The horrifically cruel game of psychological cat-and-mouse that evolves between prisoner and tormentor quickly turns tables when Quinn capitalizes on Sweeney's weaknesses by escaping and then imprisoning the salesman on his own property. The resolution, in which Sweeney and Quinn ultimately reconcile their differences with the specter of the IRA hovering in the background, stretches the bounds of credulity. It's a minor flaw in a narrative brilliantly blending past and present as O'Connor deftly probes the aftermath of loss and tragedy, interweaving the harsh facts with a dark humor that glints on the edge of pain. Granting even more emotional authenticity are the powerful flashback scenes portraying Sweeney's problematic but deeply passionate relationship with his wife. Billy's guilt and remorse for the drunken rages that destroyed their marriage, his keening memories of the brightness of a life now gone gray and sour, resonate heartbreakingly. (Mar.)