A Son Named Danny

Dan Barry recounts the life of an Irish American man you want on board

Being called Danny in an Irish American family is a bit of a set up, and if you’re a pretty gorgeous looking little guy and it’s as if lullabies were written to be sung to your ears alone, then in a way you’re in for it, kid.

So, Daniel, man dear, is there nothing more to be told of this good kid in the sex, drugs and rock `n roll department? In your father’s day (and my brother’s and by extension mine) there were pinups, from Betty Grable to Ava Gardner and Rita Hayworth, to the two Marilyns, Monroe and Novak (renamed Kim). There was a phase called “hormonal” which had impacts. You went to confession; the priest asked, “With yourself or with others, my son?” and when told said, “Now try to cut that stuff out, will you?” and you said, “Yes, Father.”

“Go on a way out of that!” you can hear the Galway grandfather growl, and maybe there is no point in talking about it ever, but the truth is that in “Pull Me Up,” the crushing weight of the author’s illness seems to come down on a heart theretofore unaware of the terrible anxieties engendered by the double helix of sex and aggression and the anomaly of male courage in the face of not only death itself, but for a firstborn son (and therefore evident peacemaker) in a family said to be contentious, of the effect on the organism of an environment in which it is said of the parents that there was an excess of drink taken and great physical and emotional pain suffered (migraines, anxiety) night after night.

Anomaly because our Celtic ancestors were said to be madmen—and madwomen as well—in battle: painted, naked, fearless, death-defying and therefore more than a little in love with personal corporeal extinction. Irish people and their offspring are even today absolutely unlike other Europeans in this strange way, and it produces in them a singular emotional coloration of which a bit too little is said in this book.

There are also certain differences between the way Barry writes and the way I write that may be generational and are worth nothing—not for the sake of argument, but for that of registration. There are writers who say and write “suppliant” and writers who say and write “supplicant”; writers who say and write “do you think that wise” and writers who say and write “do you think that’s wise.” I come from the former, older crowd, Dan Barry from the latter, younger.

Or else these same differences may have geographical origins, merely for the sake of registration. I can’t help remembering how the New York Irish of the East Side parishes and the New York Irish of the West Side parishes differed (in registration). “The Nallys,” my mother (Our Lady of Good Counsel, East 88th Street; St. Lawrence Academy) would say, “are the salt of the earth—a little Tenth Avenue, but never mind.”)

Furthermore, the Barrys and the Minogues are Munster and Connaught (South and West) so they are, whereas the McCourts and the Moores are Ulster and Leinster (North and East).

Some extracts from the two distinct parts: pre-illness and illness.

“Some taught us the poor kid games of their youth: johnny-on-the-pony, or stickball, or skelly, where the only equipment necessary was a bottle cap filled with melted crayon that could be flicked along the pavement, from one numbered box to the next.”

In Jackson Heights, when we played skelly on the street (94th between 37th Avenue and Roosevelt Avenue—over which the IRT/BMT elevated line rumbled on to Corona and Flushing), we filled our bottle caps with cut orange peel, and also made quite a thing of trading the caps we’d won: two of any Mission soda cap—cream soda was the most popular Mission drink—for any Coca-Cola cap. (The negotiations around such far-flung exotica as Nehi Cola and Dr. Pepper were more intricate, and there was a curious prohibition concerning beer bottle caps, as if something adult and unwanted were trying to worm its way in like that those older pervert teenagers who talked about showing us how to stab the can nine times.)

On Dan Barry’s bus ride to high school (a prejudicial choice on my part aimed at the special interest readership and, considerations of space taken into account, why the hell not).

Thus:

“Every morning a junior named Dominick Barone boarded the bus and bravely waded into this roiling sea of testosterone, clutching is books to his chest, now and then readjusting his thick, black-rimmed glasses. He and I soon formed a bond over old movies. My specialties of course were Abbott and Costello, the Marx Brothers, the horror films of Universal Pictures and the gangster films of Warner Brothers. He preferred Bette Davis, Greer Garson, various musicals and the choreography of Busby Berkeley. Still, there was enough cross pollination, and enough interest in each other’s disciplines, for us to talk at length about movies, often to the consternation of the seniors in the back of the bus.

“Dominick, that’s a nice outfit you got on today. Real nice, ya fruitcake.

“Hey Dominick, leave Penis alone, he’s too young to be your boyfriend.

“Dominick ignored the verbal bashing as long as he could, but he had his limits. Oh, grow up, Geary, he would call over his shoulder and then, with an exaggerated eye-roll tell me just to ignore the troglodytes in the back.

“I strongly sensed that Dominick wanted to be away from all this. He wanted to be one of the tuxedoed extras in the backgrounds of “All About Eve.” He wanted to be a tap dancer clicking out rhythms on Busby’s glistening marble floors…

“Hey Dominick, you got a dress picked out for the prom? Ya faggot.

“That would do it. In a voice pitched high enough to impeach just about everything he said, Dominick would scream about the fucking animals in the back; how they were rude, unkempt, uneducated and nothing more than a bunch of apes who clearly weren’t sure of their own sexuality.

“Thus challenged, one or two seniors would be obliged to lunge forward to throw a flurry of punches and kicks, until all that could be seen of Dominick was a single foot protruding from the edge of the seat, it’s gray Hush Puppy dangling from the toe. Then, after a few minutes, a hand would appear to grasp the back of the seat. A dramatic pause. And Dominick Barone would rise again, glasses askew, shirttail unfurled. A couple of freshmen would hand him the notebooks that had gone flying in the assault. Thank you, he would say, dryly, and rest his head against a windowpane, yearning for that glorious moment when the bus would stop at his street corner, and he could escape to the set of a different movie, one in which the hero tap-dances to happiness.”

What a guy. He immediately brings to mind the overwhelmingly authentic performance given by Philip Seymour Hoffman as Trixie opposite Robert De Niro as the cop recovering from a stroke in Joel Schumacher’s “Flawless.” I want to go on the Internet, posing as Dan Barry, and find Dominick Barone on the “lost classmates” roster. I want to know did he, as I feel he might have, go on to sing the whole of “In questa reggia” and “O Don Fatale,” “Voi lo sapete” and the Liebestod, all in tono, at parties and on Upper Broadway, as I had done in the deserted night streets of the Garment District and down in the Village when he and the author were still in swaddling clothes? Or did he just do Judy? And a Greer Garson queen, in the 60s!

And you probably don’t need to be told that one of those freshmen was that brave little guy, Dominick Barone’s interlocutor, that the attacks did not stop at two or three, and that he, the freshman, grew up to be nothing like the seniors in the back of the bus, but one of those straight guys you could trust with something you might find a sister unable to keep under her cute little turned-backwards Yankee cap. Is this more nature than nurture, or more nurture than nature? I call it grace.

And from Part Two, consider this.

“We travelled home by train, a woman and her whisper of a man, her hello-can-anyone-hear-me-of-a-man, tucked beside her in the seat like a thing of wax. After five months of kitchen-sink therapy and 30 days of radiation, I felt sapped of me. I trained my eyes to look past the scary reflection in the window and out at the December night in New Jersey. I saw no snow-white swans of hope, only the strands of Christmas lights strung across the houses of strangers. O Holy Night, my ass, I thought, so cold and forbidding was this Advent of mine.”

It so happens that “O Holy Night” has always been my favorite Christmas carol. It’s a waltz, written by Adolphe Adam, the composer of the music for the greatest of all classical ballets, every homosexual’s favorite, “Giselle,” a 19th century story of fairies and death. I bring this up because if you want to talk about the Irish at all you have to talk about the fairies and death, about Tír nA nÓg, the Land of Eternal Youth, and just generally about the Other World, in the now and in the (there should only be, as the Jews say) hereafter, accessible to Dan Barry through a backboardless basketball hoop, 18 inches in diameter, so it is, and whyever not?

And so the title, “Pull Me Up,” which comes from his mother’s heartbreaking appeal as she lay dying, becomes his own unabashed and undisguised appeal to the reader, and this in and of itself is not an easy thing to do for someone who, as I make out, has not always been his own favorite piece of information. “Pull me up.” It’s like hearing “man overboard” on the fragile bark that Catholic hymn says we’re all out there in, on life’s tempestuous seas (“so far from heaven and Thee”). So, come on, get out the guy rope and pull, because quite apart from the phenomenon of the queer sigh for the straight guy, this is a man you want on board, trust me.

Succinctly then, when quibbles wither, a beautiful guy book and a beautiful guy’s book.

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