An American’s Review of Strumpet City
Here’s a line from the One City One Book pamphlet, a line taken from the back cover of Strumpet City: “Centering on the seminal lockout of 20,000 workers in Dublin in 1913, Strumpet City encompasses a wide sweep of city life.”
I mean, yes. This is true. But it also feels like the book (perhaps in a quintessentially Irish way) is underselling itself. Strumpet City doesn’t come across as an erudite history lesson. Rather, it’s about snobbery, self-loathing, dignity, pride, love; it’s about complex characters in complex situations. It’s about sex, drugs, and church hymns. It’s about a priest crippled by alcohol, men crippled by pride, and a city crippled by inequality. This is not a tedious history lesson; this is relevant and relatable stuff. And this book deserves better marketing than a phrase like “centering on the seminal lockout of 20,000 workers in Dublin in 1913.”
Now, of course everyone reacts differently towards any given book, and anyone’s background shapes his perception of a piece of literature. Before I launch into my thoughts on Strumpet City, then, let me tell you a bit about myself. I’m American. Until two weeks ago I had never heard of James Plunkett; in fact, until two weeks ago I had never heard of the 1913 lockout. (I’m really, really sorry and embarrassed about this. Blame the American education system.) I’m not a historian, and when I read I’m almost always more interested in literary intrigue than strict factual correctness. (On a more personal level, if anyone is ever telling me a story at a bar, I don’t mind exaggeration and appreciate a flair for the dramatic. If there’s not an astronaut, real-life princess, or woolly mammoth in your bar tale, throw one in.) So there’s my lens.
And my thoughts on Strumpet City through that lens? This book was absolutely brilliant.
Let’s start with the title. (Regular DublinTown readers will notice I made this point in my last blog post, but I do think it bears repeating.) Dear reader, I do not doubt your intelligence, but I really want us all to be clear on one point: “strumpet” means “prostitute”. C’mon, you guys. This book is basically called Hookerville. Now, that’s a book you’d want to read, right? Not so dry and tedious anymore, huh?!
James Plunkett was quite involved in the labour movement; he was active in the Workers’ Union of Ireland and worked under Jim Larkin. Strumpet City has a social message: the overall tone of his novel is decidedly pro-union. Yet from that stance Plunkett manages to draw an array of heartbreakingly believable characters, characters that stretch across the spectrum of social class. He cares about the everyman—and the strumpet—but this novel is not only about poverty. Plunkett commented that “Joyce wrote about the moderately middle class, and O’Casey about the slums of the period. I was concerned with finding a form in which all the elements could fit.”
I think Plunkett achieves his goal: the range of characters in Strumpet City is breathtaking, from Rashers Tierney, possibly literature’s most destitute beggar, to the incredibly wealthy businessman Yearling. For me, the most memorable characters in the novel are the three priests, Fathers O’Sullivan, Giffley, and O’Connor. They, for me, were the backbone of the book: three extremely different men who, for very different reasons, were drawn to the same profession of serving God.
With its stunning array of characters, Strumpet City tackles a startling number of topics. Wealth inequality is a major theme, of course, but so is alcoholism, the Church, the role of women, a fear of death—just to give you a little sample of the struggles these characters face.
I’ve already rambled on for longer than I really ought to in a blog post and will stop now. Obviously, I highly recommend Strumpet City and want you all to read it. But I have a lot more to say and want to discuss the book further with you all. And I’m pretty sure that if you read Strumpet City you’ll want to talk about it too.