By Dylan Foley
An American Tragedy - from Limerick
A COMPUTER whiz. A world class runner, who was once stabbed during a crime.
Author Michael Collins has lived a full life. DYLAN FOLEY explains how the
Limerick native came to write a novel about industry and murder in the U.S.
MICHAEL Collins' American odyssey started in earnest when he got in trouble
as a teenager in his native Limerick City. He was sent to the U.S, where he
worked in a slaughterhouse in New York as an illegal alien. He then went to
Notre Dame on a running scholarship, became a writer, got stabbed in
Chicago, then got a job at Microsoft. At present, he trains for
ultra-marathons and is supporting the U.S. publication of his fifth work of
fiction, The Keepers of Truth, (Scribner) a satirical novel about the death
of heavy industry in America, wrapped around a grisly murder. First
published in the United Kingdom, the novel was short-listed for the U.K.'s
prestigious Booker Prize in 2000.
"It was my first attempt to write an `American' novel," said the
37-year-old Collins, from his home in Seattle. "I kept looking for
something with depth, like The Grapes of Wrath. I was thinking about the
dismemberment of a small town, and I settled on a murder. I see it as a
IN The Keepers of Truth, the residents of a nameless, dying industrial town
watch as the American Dream crumbles away as the factories close. The novel
is a black comedy set in the late 1970s, constructed around the murder of
an old man where every thriller cliche - the dogged reporter, the
hard-boiled cop - is turned on its head.
The roots of the novel stem from Collins own history. When he arrived at
Notre Dame in 1983, the factories in Indiana and other mid-West states were
still shutting down.
"I traveled around Michigan, and Detroit. There was a real Roger and Me
feel to the area," he said, referring to the Michael Moore film on the
General Motors layoffs in the 1980s. The region in the United States with
dying factories came to be called the "Rust Belt," and Collins' new novel
is loosely based on a smaller version of Flint, Michigan.
During his summers in college, Collins drove around the United States in a
station wagon with other foreign-born scholarship runners, competing in
local races and splitting the prize money.
"It was about the time of the `84 Olympics, and you definitely had a chance
of winning money," he said. "There were some African runners, but it was
mostly Europeans, some I knew from international races. Three or four of us
would get in a car, going to different cities."
The local response was mixed to the foreign ringers.
"Some places would make it difficult to cash the prize checks...at the
bank, they'd say, `You can't cash the check if you don't have an account,'"
said Collins. "Other places, people were very interested in us, asking us
where we were from. In the wake of Booby Sands, there was some
consciousness to the Irish situation. The probing questions people would
ask made me think about being a writer."
The rough living Collins saw in the American countryside was much different
than the wealth he saw in South Bend, at Notre Dame. "There are two tracks
in America, and they do not merge," he said.
COLLINS' Keepers of the Truth is narrated by Bill, a recent college
graduate and the unstable junior reporter at The Truth, the town's local
newspaper, which is dying like the factories. Bill has a passion for giving
maudlin, pseudo-intellectual tirades.
When an old man is reported missing, Ronnie Lawton, the man's
steroid-injecting son, is the prime suspect in the disappearance. Soon the
old man's severed finger is found, pointing to a gruesome death. What
follows is a surreal search for the killer, while Bill meditates on the
collapse of American society. He bemoans the loss of heavy industry to the
service industry in a dirge he calls "Ode to the Trainee Manager," where he
says, "Oh happy are ye who inherit the fast-food fryer." Collins writes a
brooding tale of shattered dreams, liberally mixed with satire.
Ronnie Lawton becomes a local cult figure and the employee of the month at
the local Denny's. Bill starts an unhealthy infatuation with Teri, Ronnie's
battered and estranged wife, and her McDonald's-fed toddler son.
The plot gets more murky when someone sends Bill a note saying where the
missing man's head can be found. The local police detective first helps
Bill hide evidence, then suspects him of aiding the murderer.
After college, Collins and his college sweetheart-turned-wife Heidi moved
to Chicago so Collins could go to graduate school. While going shopping for
groceries, Collins was stabbed by a deranged stranger. He survived and went
on to get his Ph.D. in English from the University of Illinois at Chicago.
He went to work for Microsoft in Seattle as a software designer. He also
became a world-class ultra-marathoner, running and winning races in
Antarctica, India and up Mount Everest.
"Everest was a 120-mile race over five days," said Collins of the 1999
marathon. He said the brutal race went up to 14,000 feet, about halfway up
Collins had started writing short stories in college. He has published two
collections of stories, The Man Who Dreamt of Lobsters and The Feminists Go
Swimming, and two other novels, The Life and Times of a Teaboy and Emerald
Underground. Emerald Underground was a bestseller in Europe and is a
semi-autobiographical tale of Collins' immigrant experience.
Collins started writing Keepers when he was still at Microsoft, which he
left this year. He would go out on training runs with a tape recorder,
putting ideas down as he ran.
Collins' American publisher Scribner bought the novel after the Booker
nomination. When Collins had initially tried to sell his novel in the
United States, he was rebuffed by various New York publishers.
"They said the book was ill-conceived," mused Collins. "It turned into a
real slugfest--they said I wasn't a thriller writer, that I didn't know how
police conducted investigations," missing the boat on Collins' satire.
In the New York publishing world, dead Midwestern factories weren't even a
memory. "The publishers didn't think there was such economic fallout in
America," said Collins.