Flann O’Brien died in 1966, but he has just written a very fine novel. The publisher identifies the author as a living man from Cincinnati named Dallas, but the fingerprints all over it belong to O’Brien, the dead Irish-man.
As if O’Brien’s identity weren’t already problematic enough. He was born Brian O’Nolan and published under the names Myles na Gopaleen, The O’Blather, An Proc, Peter the Painter, and George Knowall, who once inquired, “What precisely is a given person’s name?” And then there’s the matter of his death. Born in 1911, O’Brien-O’Nolan-Gopaleen-etc. drank enough for six men with six names and certainly couldn’t have lived much past his alleged day of death, April 1, 1966, but nevertheless we have this new novel, which doesn’t look like a novel but is.
Though it’s more improbable than a dead Irish author writing a great American novel, there is a Dallas Wiebe who lives in Cincinnati and possesses a Flannish sense of the absurd. The Vox Populi Street Stories clearly presents itself as a collection of stories, but it is indeed a novel, complete with plot elements that gather meaning as they reappear in successive stories and characters who learn about themselves. Wiebe published a collection of stories called Skyblue’s Essays in 1995, purportedly the work of the hero of his 1969 novel, Skyblue the Badass. Whoever he is, he cannot be trusted with genres.
The “stories” of “Dallas Wiebe” are narrated by the syllabically palindromic Gottlieb Otto Liebgott, a retired German doctor and widower with two concerns in life: One, he hopes to transform the exploits of a hapless detective named Dallasandro Vibini—an Italianized version of the so-called author’s name—into a collection of stories along the lines of Watson’s chronicles of Sherlock Holmes. (If you open Vox Populi expecting conventional mystery tales, however, you will be disappointed off the bat by the first, “Vibini at the Bat,” which is solved by Vibini’s brother, whose psychic abilities allow him to dispense with clues.) Two, he wants to get to the bottom of the ill-fated 1946 military campaign waged by Giovanni Battista Salvatore, a brave captain of the Illyrian army. Sadly, Liebgott is unaware that Illyria fell to the Romans 1,940 years earlier, which is always a handicap on the battlefield.
The O’Brien novel that Vox Populi most resembles is The Third Policeman. Both center on two men who live together, one of them without paying rent. The freeloader brings a young wife into the home, making the breadwinner feel unwelcome. Unlike Vox Populi, with its war hero and a nation’s annals of specious military history, The Third Policeman dwells on the collected writings of a nonexistent philosopher named De Selby. A typical arrow from this quiver explains that De Selby “did not recognise sleep as such, preferring to regard the phenomenon as a series of ‘fits’ and heart-attacks.” The question of sleep is visited thusly on Vox Populi Street: “When we are bored God sends sleep to relieve our suffering. . . . We pay a great price for our unnatural state of wakefulness.”
Both books are loaded with mangled Latinisms. O’Brien: “The Sergeant gave me a look which I am sure he himself would describe as one of non-possum and noli-me-tangere.” Turn to pages 60-61 of Vox Populi and you’ll find summa cum laude, semper paratus, semper timidum scelus, saepe falsus sed nunquam incertus, dies irae, nota bene, in nomine, Dominus vobiscum, exeunt omnes, fiat lux, and cave canem.
Beware of this doc; Liebgott’s feints and dodges will have you chasing yourself in circles. He wants you to think he’s a rank amateur on the page. Along with the Latin noise and absurd disquisitions on sleep, there is much intentionally clumsy pondering of the conventions of fiction (“I’m trying to find the best literary language I can”), an art he claims to have never considered before. The ostensible plots remain hopelessly convoluted. Saponata, a/k/a Sudsy, the detective’s young wife, is pregnant with another man’s child, and Vibini is hired to find himself.
Yet the daftness turns out to be deftness, and the nonsense sheds light on the friendship that emerges between Liebgott and Saponata. We learn more about the suicide of Liebgott’s wife and the mental illnesses of their children, and when Saponata goes into labor, his super-realistic description of the Christmas Eve delivery and sensitive if bleak ideas about birth take us a considerable distance away from where the book began. We hardly notice when the prose turns gossamer: “The Christmas lights overhead and from the shop windows glowed softly like the fires of a gentle Hell as they illuminated the paths of the tormented souls. I felt as if I had descended into the underworld, a feeling I had had many times before when walking around Cincinnati.” It’s as if Liebgott were still practicing surgery; he anesthetized us and slid the knife in without causing any pain.
According to a letter O’Brien wrote to a publisher, The Third Policeman begins as a conventional mystery before shifting into a world beyond “known planes or dimensions.” Similarly, Wiebe quickly leaves the mystery genre, to plunge deeper into Mystery.