Conversation in the Nolan household in the village of Sutton on the north shore of Dublin Bay goes three ways on a two-lane street. Bernadette and J Nolan do the talking while their writer son Christopher signals with his eyes and--when his body lets him--his arms or feet, emitting low expressive sounds of enthusiasm and pleasure. Mrs. Nolan is her 34-year-old son's chief interpreter--it took them years to work out a system of communication--since Nolan, spastic since birth, can neither talk nor control most of his physical movements. J , a retired farmer and psychiatric aide, contributes his own stories, and sister Yvonne, 36, a mother of two who works for the state television service, lives nearby.
The family has greeted PW warmly with tea and homemade scones in their large, bright kitchen, where talk flows freely. Mother, father and son are clearly used to inquisitive visitors of every stripe, ever since young Christy's emergence as a prize-winning poet and autobiographer. The account he wrote of his childhood, Under the Eye of the Clock, published here by St. Martin's Press, won him England's Whitbread Book of the Year Award in 1987 at the age of 21. Then he dropped out of Trinity College to write a novel, The Banyan Tree (Arcade). A collection of his poetry, called Dam-Burst of Dreams, first published when he was 15, garnered him critical praise and fans such as Madonna, former New York City ballet star Jacques d'Amboise and Michael Stipe of the rock group R.E.M.
Subjects of discussion on this wet, gray winter day range from the literary ambitions of the two grandfathers to whom Nolan has dedicated The Banyan Tree, to Irish authors of note (including A.J. Cronin, the doctor-author of The Stars Fall Down and The Citadel), and the antics of interviewers and photographers. Lord Snowden once turned up on the family's doorstep to take a picture of Nolan out front in a hole in the ground because he thought the standard portrait of a cripple in a wheelchair was a cliché.
The word cripple isn't frowned upon, nor are allusions to Nolan's constant physical struggles or the help he needs to get through all his daily routines. Modern medicine has supplied a drug to help his body relax, but to date no mechanism has been found to ease the tasks of writing and speaking. Nolan has fun challenging visitors to understand his gestures. In telling the story of a journalist who once asked Nolan why he had stopped writing at one point in his career, the writer and his mother play a game of mock charades. Nolan manages to throw out one arm and tilt his head toward a corner of the room, signaling his mother to turn his wheelchair in the direction of an electric heater. (In unrehearsed moments, she interprets his wants with rapid-fire questions requiring only a yes or no response. A motion of his eyes upwards means yes. She also can tell when he is resistant, or saying no.) He paddles his feet up and down on the wheelchair rest, teasing his tongue-tied visitor into guessing, finally, that, of course, the reason was because "you had cold feet."
Nolan smiles gleefully. Another message successfully conveyed, hinting at the thousand, million, other challenges he has met since the age of three, when he first became aware of the terrible truth about his body and felt the terror of not being able to express who he was and what he was capable of learning.
Asphyxiation at birth caused permanent impairment of his nerve-signaling system, a condition he says is now labeled dystomia. The miracle is the way he fought his way through the agonies of frustration and minefields of prejudice to be taken seriously as both student and writer.
"If he hadn't had a breakthrough, he would rather have died," Mrs. Nolan says of her son's heroic efforts to prove himself in spite of a handicap severe enough to prohibit him from even reading without help. He writes prose and correspondence with a prong attached to a headband, nodding away laboriously at a green IBM Selectric typewriter set up on a table in the study. His best work is done when his limbs are relaxed, but Mrs. Nolan must hold his chin throughout to steady his neck and head. It took him 12 years to produce The Banyan Tree in this manner.
Disbelieving skeptics have suggested that his mother d s his writing for him. She guffaws. He bristles. That would be improbable for any number of reasons. "Christy is his own man," she asserts vehemently out of his hearing range. Sheer determination got him through the novel. Because of his difficulty reading, he would have to remember nearly all he had done days--and years--before, using a system of his own involving numbers, colors, shapes and even sounds.
Whitbread money helped the Nolan family buy their white bungalow in one of Dublin's most sought-after suburbs. The views from the house are impressive: up the hill at the back is what was once the home of the Jameson Distillery family, and out front is the sea, which Nolan describes in a fax as "a magic-lantern show," especially at evening time, "the daddy of all times," when "the tested tides thieve its hues of red and yellow to judder the waves as they creep and curl." He knows the visiting birds by name, and all the passing ships. Dubbed Fairwinds, the house is his "lifesaver," giving him, literally, a breadth of vision.
He works eight or 10 hours a day, but "if the muse was on strike, I'd be out of my study door like a shot. No muse, no typing!" Leisure moments are spent smoking a cigar, having a brandy and watching TV or a videotape. Because his breathing is shallow, Mrs. Nolan has to hold his nose when he smokes. Eating and drinking are time-consuming for the same reason. His frame is thin, but his face is handsome and full, his gaze direct. He is a good traveler and an eager one, Mrs. Nolan attests. Publicity rounds on tour in 1988 included a spot on Good Morning America and 20/20 and added to the arsenal of stored impressions that show up to advantage in The Banyan Tree. Set primarily in the rural Irish county of Westmeath, where Nolan was born, the plot involves an AIDS victim, a dissolute priest, a greedy landowner and a vagabond son and is written in a soaring lyric key.
Television and radio "almost educated" him. "I could travel the world watching the images appear. Every cloud has a silver lining and I find being entrapped in this carcass of mine I have the time necessary to think and marvel at people, places, history, children and the changing landscape and seascape outside my own windows."
Charlotte's Web was his first real book: "I loved it and the notion of giving a lively imagination to a pig was nectar to my mind." But Beckett is his "all-time favorite. I love the way he studied the odd and weird and sought for what made them act so." He tries, he says, not to be influenced by other writers. There are, however, the pleasures of Emily Dickinson, Patrick Kavanagh, the BrontÃ«s, Shakespeare, Dylan Thomas and Gerard Manley Hopkins, among others. The only work of James Joyce he has read is Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. He is waiting for Ulysses to come out on audiotape.
Frequent questions about key influences are almost redundant. "Everything is an influence on a person trapped in a nightmare!" he writes. Besides his grandfathers, he calls his father his "muse," who "always has been there talking and reminiscing and feeding me tidbits of Joyce, Beckett, D.H. Lawrence. The real truth is I'm the writer he'd love to be or should be. He got all his interests from his father--I suppose you'd say it was part of Ireland's oral tradition. My mother is more down to earth. She calls what we're at 'verbal diarrhea.' "
Nolan's other mentors were the doctor who persuaded education authorities to take him as a pupil; the headmaster who paved his way into Trinity, where he majored in English; and biographer Edna Healey, wife of then British Chancellor of the Exchequer, who was one of the judges for an early poetry competition he won that was sponsored by the British Spastics Society. A fellow Trinity student encouraged him after hearing Nolan's essay on Beckett read aloud in class, and his sister, Yvonne, pronounced him a writer serious enough to deserve a literary agent.
Finding an agent and publisher proved remarkably easy. Nolan wrote Lord Weidenfeld directly, asking him to publish his poetry and had his mother phone London agent Giles Gordon, requesting him to be his representative. Both responded with alacrity. "Never could I have imagined the stir which my writings created," Nolan writes.
Arcade's acquisition of Nolan's book was serendipitous in many ways. Richard and Jeannette Seaver were lunching in London a year ago with Ion Trewin, editor-in-chief of Orion Publishing Group, who mentioned the firm was reprinting Under the Eye of the Clock and just that day had got in the galleys of The Banyan Tree. The Seavers went off to the south of France for a week with a copy and "absolutely fell in love with it." They called Giles Gordon of Curtis Brown and made what they said was, for them, a "substantial offer." The next step was to win over the corresponding agent in New York, Russ Galen, who eventually, after sending the book out to several other firms, said that the Seavers' enthusiasm was "so overwhelming that they should have it."
Nolan's modesty and charm comes across well on the printed page, as do his wit and humor. When asked why he decided to move from memoir and poetry to fiction, he writes: "Stories are my games in stressed language. Loneliness and joyousness combine to eddy them from the brain. Storybook was ever a magical term to me, stories too became secret gardens where I never felt crippled, never felt described 'numb-skull.' Please believe me when I tell you that I haven't a clue where my stories come from. The family have been mighty to me but the unbridled brain is mine, mine, mine."
Banyan Tree was sparked into being by the image of "an old woman holding up her skirts as she made ready to jump a rut in a field." Nolan seals such an image in his mind, then selects "special adjectives with which to dress my image. When that is decided I let go on my language--so in reality my readers are really seeing joy typed in Braille-like symbols on my typewritten page."
The title, he says, comes from a tree that grows from a seed "dropped by a bird high up in the top of another tree and from that host there grows the little seedling which in time falls down to swing hither and thither until it hits the ground. My Banyan Tree resembles the brain. Thoughts and ideas drop down from it to take root in the human journey which every person must take. I chose the title because I wanted to create the mental landscape of old age. Society regards the elderly as but fodder for the graveyard or Plinth-figures in a nursing home. My character, Minnie O'Brien, though old, is yet a hulled human being dressing her days and nights with long memory and even longer worries."
His next book already is forming in his head. "I'm planning away, umbrella held in my hand. I listen to ideas drop like rain and place names nudge for consideration. Underneath the umbrella I shelter until the shower is over and then I'll fold it up and with my pointer strapped to my head I'll start typing the hard linguistic sounds which I've been hearing these months past."
A trained observer, he hears and sees nearly everything around him before anybody else in the room. Somewhere midway through the conversation at the kitchen table, Nolan--alert and engaged as usual--gets his mother's attention. Sensitive to the slightest change in his demeanor, she interrupts the word flow. It takes only moments for her to understand what he is telling her.
"Oh, you want our guests to have some more tea, is that it, Christy?" His eyes open skyward. That's it exactly.
More tea, and hold the sympathy.