Forget everything you might remember about the movie, “The Informer.” The book it was based on will knock you on your arse with its realism, squalor, crime, and violence.
In Liam O’Flaherty’s 1925 novel of the same name, Gypo Nolan is not the lovable oaf played by Victor McLaglen in John Ford’s 1935 film. He is a beast roaming the slums of Dublin. O’Flaherty almost always describes the powerful giant with the slow brain in animal terms, except when comparing him to plants or rocks.
Gypo Nolan is about as down and out as a person could get in the Ireland of the early 1920s. While the country was struggling to establish a new, independent government, political factions and splinter groups were fighting among themselves, inflation was on the rise and the poor were getting poorer. The only money Gypo could lay his his hands on was from beating and robbing sailors or through handouts from Katie Fox, an emaciated, drug addicted, prostitute.
Once a police officer, Gypo was thrown off the force. He then got involved with a Communist organization looking to dominate the new government and in need of a thug. Sent to deal with a farm labor group, Gypo and his old pal Frank McPhillip got drunk and Frank shot and killed one of the farm leaders. This got both of them thrown out of the radical group. Frank, with a price on his head, was forced to hide in the countryside. Gypo returned to the slums of Dublin.
Living in a men’s shelter, Gypo is surprised to see Frank sneak in and tell him he is ill, possibly dying, and is going home to visit his parents.
This puts an idea in Gypo's head. Tired of being broke, wanting a good meal and drinking money, he decides to go to the police, tell them where to find Frank, and claim the £20 reward (about £1,200 pounds or $1,500 in today’s money, but could have been a lot more due to the conditions of the time).
In a skirmish with the cops, Frank is killed.
Now, with the money in his pocket, Gypo goes right into a bar and starts drinking. The bartender is stunned when Gypo produces a pound note to pay. For a guy everyone knows is on the skids, pulling out a bill worth about $70 or more would be stunning. Katie Fox comes in, sees Gypo has money and starts cadging drinks off him and manipulating him to give her some cash.
Carried away with his new prestige as a man of means, in one of the best scenes in the book, Gypo goes into a little fish and chips shop and buys food for anyone who wants to eat. He spends recklessly and a big crowd gathers. Among them is a member of the radical group of which Gypo was once a member.
The group and its leader, Dan Gallagher, now suspicious of Gypo and his new found wealth, haul him into a secret tribunal and get the truth out of him. He was the one who informed on Frank. Every member of the group is now in peril if Gypo ever goes to the cops again. Gypo is sentenced to die, but he escapes, runs through the streets like a frightened animal and is finally killed by the group. Before he dies, he stumbles into a church where Frank’s mother is praying and he asks her forgiveness.
Unlike the sentimental movie, the ending of the book is graphic and unsettling.
Another person in the story who emerges as a main character is Dan Gallagher, the young leader of the revolutionary group. Gallagher is a man committed to the Communist movement, but reveals to Frank’s sister, a young woman in love with him, that his – Gallagher’s – ideas and goals are not fully formed or even well thought out. He enjoys the power of leading men, but is confused about many things.
Frank’s sister, Mary, is the only character who has a chance of escaping the slums and the wretched lives of the people around her. She finished school and got an office job in a Dublin company. If only there had been a little more about her, the book would not have been so bleak. But a dark, bleak tale is what O’Flaherty set off to tell and it is what he achieved.
Liam O’Flaherty (1896-1984) was born in the rural Aran Islands, studied to be a priest for a while, fought in the English army in World War I, had Communist leanings, wrote 14 novels and many short stories and has been considered one of Ireland’s great, if overlooked authors.
The Informer is a marvelous read, even if O’Flaherty, describing the squalor and poverty, lays it on a little thick. At times he also sails off on wordy tangents, waxing poetic and nearly forgetting the point he was trying to make. But those passages are few and do not take away from the power of the book and of O’Flaherty’s ability to describe the inner workings of Gypo's mind.
Before leaving the impression that the novel is a grim slog, there are some funny moments in The Informer, as when Gypo beats up a man in the street and then beats up the cop who came to break up the fight, then searches for the tiny little hat he always wears:
“His massive round skull stood bare under the night. It stood naked, hummocked and gashed here and there, like a badly shorn sheep. He traversed the skull with his right palm, in little flurried rushes, as if he had had a vague suspicion that the hat was hiding somewhere along the expanse of skull.”
It is a brutal humor, but then, brutal is a good word for the book.
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