Not everybody knows how I killed old Phillip Mathers, smashing his jaw in with my spade; but first it is better to speak of my friendship with John Divney because it was he who first knocked old Mathers down by giving him a great blow in the neck with a special bicycle-pump which he manufactured himself out of a hollow iron bar. Divney was a strong civil man but he was lazy and idle-minded. He was personally responsible for the whole idea in the first place. It was he who told me to bring my spade. He was the one who gave the orders on the occasion and also the explanations when they were called for. (p. 7)
Summary: What human craving desires is infinite, and also empty.
The narrator, whose name we never learn because he has forgotten it himself, is a man with a wooden leg who was involved in a murder scheme to steal old Mathers's savings. He is a scholar, an obsessive student of the works of a quack, crank, and kook named de Selby, who claims among many other things that journeys are hallucinations and that night is the result of the accumulation of unsanitary black air, which causes sleep as a sort of miniature stroke. The narrator has spent years writing a book which he regards as a new stage in de Selby scholarship, but he does not have the money to prepare it for publication. Divney, however, hides the box of money, and only with reluctance does he let the narrator know the location.
This is all the straight story, although given that almost the narrator's first act is to blame Divney for everything, it's unclear how much of this is true and how much of it is self-deception. When the narrator attempts to retrieve the box, however, which Divney says is hidden under the floorboards of old Mathers's house, the entire world seems to alter; his senses are confused, and afterward everything seems more vivid and clear. He cannot find the box, but he does find old Mathers, who tells him that the police barracks is nearby. The narrator, obsessed with finding the box, decides to go to the police to get their help in finding it. He also discovers that he has a soul, which he decides to call Joe. In the police barracks -- a strange building that at first looks flat -- he finds Sergeant Pluck and Policeman MacCruiskeen, whose words and actions make no sense and who are obsessed with bicycles. He learns of a mysterious third policeman, Fox, and discovers that his box contains not cash but omnium, an all-powerful substance that can give you whatever you please. He learns certain important facts about himself -- and does not learn them, because he forgets them.
After O'Brien failed to find an Irish publisher who was interested in the manuscript, he tried shopping it around in America, using a different title: Hell Goes Round and Round, and indeed, the novel is one of the best literary depictions of hell in modern times: the loss of reason, the evasion of reality, the obsessive devotion to things that don't matter, the smallness of concern, the mindless, self-excusing repetitiveness and self-imposed forgetfulness of a person destined for hell. That makes it sound very serious and dry, but while the novel captures all of it perfectly, it is a comic novel, and quite zanily fun. When I first read the novel, years and years ago, the absurdities of de Selby, hammering noisily in order to burst the atomic air-balloons to clear out unhealthy air, tickled me. Now that I'm an academic, the absurdities of de Selby's commentators were even more hilarious -- they are extreme, but they are extreme versions of the nonsensical behavior and catty reputation-games you actually get among academics. The policemen and their bicycles never get old. Yet for all the jokes the story itself is interesting and the psychological insight that underlies all the incoherence and absurdity -- that someone in desiring something may forget himself and even what he desires, so that he is left desiring only whatnot (a synonym for omnium)-- is sound.
Favorite Passage: There are many great passages, but it is hard to beat some of the conversations of the narrator with Sergeant Pluck.
'It would be no harm if you filled up these forms,' he said. 'Tell me,' he continued, 'would it be true that you are an itinerant dentist and that you came on a tricycle?'
'It would not,' I replied.
'On a patent tandem?'
'Dentists are an unpredictable coterie of people,' he said. 'Do you tell me it was a velocipede or a penny-farthing?'
'I do not,' I said evenly. He gave me a long searching look as if to see whether I was serious in what I was saying, again wrinkling up his brow.
'Then maybe you are no dentist at all,' he said, 'but only a man after a dog license or papers for a bull?'
'I did not say I was a dentist,' I said sharply, 'and I did not say anything about a bull.'
The Sergeant looked at me incredulously.
'That is a great curiosity,' he said, 'a very difficult piece of puzzledom, a snorter.' (pp. 55-56)
Recommendation: Highly Recommended. As I've said before, this is my favorite postmodern novel, by far.
Flann O'Brien, The Third Policeman, Dalkey Archive Press (Chicago: 2002).