Michelle Woods on Sean Nolan’s Memoir Guys Like Us

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Sean Nolan signs books in Manasqan, NJ

How it’s New York: Set in and around the Irish Jersey Shore, Guys Like Us: A Memoir of Life Lost and Found is close enough (editor’s note:  tristate!  It’s tristate!  I’m from Jersey!).

How it’s Irish: The Nolan family and their myths give some insight into the rise of Irish-America.

“A mythic storytelling edged with darkness, violence, sadness.”   And it’s funny, says Michelle Woods about Sean Nolan’s memoir of his larger than life father and grandfather.  

“If you had asked me what I wanted for my family before The Accident,” Sean Nolan writes in his memoir, Guys Like Us: A Memoir of Life Lost and Found, “I would have had the same answer for decades: to be normal people.”
No chance of that with the Nolan family, one full of giants, if only in their own tales of “cars, and war, and balls.” When Nolan’s father Mike Nolan, a workaholic attorney, gets hit by a truck on a bike ride, and emerges from a coma, he has lost all memory of his past life and any ability to go back to his hard-charged lawyer life, despite a recovery addiction to episodes of Law & Order*. 
In writing the book, Sean is telling his father about that past life, despite the revelation that his father, post-Accident, is a far nicer person: “Now his face lit up when he saw you, in a way that let you know you mattered.” Not that this was never there, but it lay beneath the pre-Accident “layers of hurt and bitterness and sarcasm.”
But Nolan admires the “nobility” behind his father and his even tougher attorney grandfather, Joe Nolan, who rose from poverty in Newark, and who took over the bars of his neighborhood with his brothers via open fist-fights. One of the brothers, Nolan’s Uncle Eddie is also a legend, with “brilliant white hair combed back so that he looked like his head might take off” and a wife “built like Marilyn Monroe.”
When Eddie gets diagnosed with cancer, he organizes a country-wide “Farewell Tour”. The hometown party has everyone dressed in tuxes in the pool, along with errant kegs, a band in Hawaiian shirts, and a queue down the block to get in. 
“We would never see anything like this again,” Nolan writes, “Except we would. Eddie lived for twelve more years.”
Nolan’s clenched prose, giving his father back the poisoned gift of the Nolan men – a mythic storytelling edged with darkness, violence, sadness – also breathes with their humor too. From hardscrabble beginnings – one aunt toasts the poor who didn’t get out of Newark – the family constructs its own myths to explain their own success. Even if it means having to go to fancy schools with “khaki-wearing country club larvae.”

In rehabilitation, Sean posts index cards on the hospital wall, of his father’s truisms, the castle of his beliefs that his father re-learns, with some bewilderment and bemusement. Faced with our truths from a past life, they seem estranged, superfluous, untrue.

And there is also a sense that these stories, that make them local kings-for-a-day, are dangerous to puncture – not so much for the teller, but for the addressee. A woman asking Uncle Eddie what the war (WWII) was really like, finally gets his real answer. German POWs were shot because there wasn’t enough food to keep them, and no one could hear the shots deep in the woods.
At the same time, for all the hurt, Nolan keeps it low with the judgment: 
“You meet guys sometimes who say things like, ‘my old man was never around, he worked so hard, like it’s a boo-hoo type of thing,” he writes, “You want to tell them to go fuck themselves, because who did you think he was busting his ass for all goddamn day?”
The macho myths and stance mean a final blow-out between Mike (father) and Joe (grandfather). Even after The Accident, and Sean’s stories to his father, Mike meets Joe to make amends and is rejected. The heart-breaking – but, in the book, understated – failure to make-up, despite a point-blank brush with mortality, makes you shake your head.
“Had a Dad” one chapter-heading reads. The past-tense phrase seems, in Nolan’s world, part job description, part joke, part love-letter.

*Editor’s Note:  I once worked there.  At the time I thought it was like the afterlife; everyone went there after something.  I can relate.

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Copyright 2011 New York Irish Arts

Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    This would be a wonderful story if it were true. Sadly, none of it is……it is a wonderful tale of fiction, completely made up. Sean Nolan does a wonderful job of fabricating fairy tales…..

  2. I got a copy of his(Sean Nolan) book last December from a friend who gave it to me as a gift. The thing is that, badly until now I got no time to turn its pages and read…should be giving time for it this weekend then.