The story of an aging poet transplanted from Ireland to America as a young man, Thomas Murphy is itself pure poetry. Roger Rosenblatt’s return to fiction after several memoirs, including two moving books dealing with the aftermath of his daughter’s sudden death, is a brief but lovely rumination on one man’s irresistible impulse to savor life’s riches, even as losses mount and the ravages of age take their relentless toll.
Five decades after leaving the tiny island of Inishmaan (population 160) for New York City, Murphy finds himself facing eviction from his Upper West Side apartment and pressure from his daughter to seek medical attention for what she believes are the early stages of dementia. Dismissive of these threats to his independence, he prefers to live by the motto, “You never crash if you go full tilt,” devoting his days to crafting simple poems and sharing his love of verse with a small group of homeless people in a church rec room.
Even Murphy is surprised by the unexpected turn his life takes when a young man he meets in a bar presents him with a bizarre request: to deliver the news to the man’s wife, a blind woman, that her husband suffers from a terminal illness. That chance encounter opens into a tender, if unconventional, love story that Rosenblatt shares with grace and insight.
The novel’s principal appeal lies in the fresh and striking stream-of-consciousness voice of its protagonist. Murphy’s zest for life shines in every anecdote and observation, but it is tempered by his consciousness of time’s passage, reflected in the deaths of his wife and best friend and in his vivid memories of the harsh, beautiful world he left behind in Ireland. Rosenblatt has always demonstrated an affection for the play of words on the page, and in Murphy he’s created the perfect character to showcase that facility for language.
Thomas Murphy is an invigorating example of what it means, in the words of its protagonist, to “walk through the landscape of a life.” With a character as distinctive as this clear-eyed poet by our side, it’s a rewarding journey.