Young Patrick Brogan’s transgressions, major and minor, are written down by his mother in a large blue ledger, and then dealt with by his father when the Old Man, as Patrick refers to him, returns from his job on an oil rig in the North Sea. The Old Man is short-tempered, aggrieved by the loss of the family business, and usually smells of whiskey and Old Spice. Patrick is terrified of his father’s rages, the anger that rolls across his face like a tidal wave, but is at the same time desperate for his father’s love.
This tension between father and son occupies the center of James Claffey’s debut novel, The Heart Crossways. Claffey, who teaches English at Santa Barbara High School, spent nearly five years writing the novel, the bulk of the work accomplished during his summer vacations. Born and raised in Ireland, Claffey skillfully places the reader inside the Brogan household in working-class Dublin, where Mam fries potatoes and sausage, makes biscuits, and pours tea, always with a cigarette dangling from the corner of her mouth, and the Old Man watches television and nurses a glass of whiskey. But sooner rather than later, something sets the Old Man off, arguments ensue, doors slam, and Patrick retreats to his room and the refuge of his books. The local Catholic school doesn’t afford Patrick any relief from domestic turmoil — he’s not popular, top of his class, or athletic — and more than once the priests target him for verbal abuse or a slap.
Fear of his father and the church and the prying eyes and wagging tongues of the neighbors hold Patrick in check for the most part, but he’s not above making mischief with his friends, stealing magazines from the local store or torching an abandoned car. Patrick’s constricted world is laced with dark humor, and Claffey mixes it with the terror and the small joys, the confusion of faith and family, and the ache carved in a boy’s heart when his father doesn’t return his love.