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Book Review: In Peter King’s ‘Terrible Beauty’, familiarity breeds authenticity

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By James E. Mulvaney

It was a brief moment that could make a literary career.

President Clinton was stepping out of his helicopter, posing for his nightly clip on the television news. One hand was waving at the cameras. Tucked under the other presidential arm was a book. The cover flashed for a moment: "Terrible Beauty," by Peter King. It was a moment that every writer would kill for.

A generation ago, there was a similar scene when a novel by Ian Fleming fell out of President Kennedy’s suitcase for all the world to see. The citing made Fleming one of the hottest writers of the 1960s and created the still-thriving industry that is James Bond.

This is not to suggest that King, a Republican congressman from Long Island, abandon his political career for a blind run at Hollywood (although chucking it all for a career in the movies might be a safer bet than the recent suggestion that he could beat Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton in a run for the U.S. Senate). Yes, King shouldn’t give up the day job, but he has produced a novel to be proud of.

"Terrible Beauty" is an important book about one of the most significant and least understood periods of Irish political history. King takes us back to mid-1980s, a period when sectarian tensions were at impasse. The spotlight of world opinion had turned elsewhere and Northern Ireland was generally regarded as one of the insoluble problems best ignored. However, a few brave people, most notably King, ignored conventional wisdom and reached out across the sectarian divide in the search of common ground. While none of those forays proved directly successful, they set the tone for what became the Irish peace process. If the extremists on both sides could have somewhat polite conversations, maybe the situation wasn’t hopeless. If Peter King could sit with the UDA, maybe Gerry Adams could sit with John Hume.

One shouldn’t underestimate King’s part in the Irish peace process. King’s visits to the Shankill Road in the 1980s, the first substantive talks between Loyalist hardliners and any American politician (with the notable exception Paul O’Dwyer). King spoke for the hard-line of the IRA without apology. But he was eloquent in making his argument that the fight was between Irishmen and the British. He didn’t convince any UDA men to be baptized in a papist ceremony, but he fomented an idea that tantalizing raised the possibility of peace.

King is an easy man to underestimate. In the 1980s he was Nassau County comptroller, the chief accountant of suburbia. His Irish credentials seemed tied as much to the fortunes of the Notre Dame football team as to real doings in his ancestral homeland. My first long conversation with King about "The Troubles" took place in a Baggot Street steakhouse in 1984. I was a young newspaper reporter who had moved to Ireland to cover my first war and was commuting between Dublin and Belfast. King’s grasp of Irish politics seemed to be nothing more than an ability to recite the propaganda of Sinn Fein. Yes, I agreed, plantation, partition and institutional discrimination were all a mistake. But that argument has been going on forever, I said, what about the future?

I was spending a lot of time on the Shankill and, despite the unquestionable bigotry, those loyalist people needed to be part of any peace equation. "You’re right," King said and demanded that I introduce him to some of the hard-line leadership.

And so started the series of meetings that are at the heart of his book. I was fortunate enough to witness some of the meetings. (I was actually the driver who took King to his first meeting with George Seawright, the scariest politician on the Shankill.) I mention this not to imply that I played any part in their importance, but to bolster my claim that King’s accounts of the meetings are journalistically accurate and politically astute. He captures the melange of hatred, distrust and admiration in the first meetings of the IRA and UDA prisoner wives. His fictionalized account of the meeting with Seawright makes me wonder if he had a tape recorder; it’s that accurate.

The hero of this book, Bernadette Hanlon, is a Belfast "everywoman." Her brother, an IRA member, died while planting a bomb (an "own goal," as the Belfast cops say). Her husband is also an IRA member who spends most of the book in jail (this is a good thing because it keeps author King out of the marital bedroom; his few attempts at describing romance and sex are wooden).

The story line takes Bernadette through a series of heartbreaks to redemption on the streets of Belfast and New York City. King knows these neighborhoods and people well. The detail of life in a war zone carries the book beyond its somewhat pedestrian plot. Bernadette is a likable character who needs a few more human weaknesses if King plans on reviving her in a sequel.

My complaints: King needs a dialogue coach. His attempt to transcribe Belfast banter is ill-advised. His use of slang is a bit over the top (not every West Belfast person calls it "the Ra" instead of IRA or, more commonly, "the Army"). Finally he needs to work on his chronology a bit (a "balmy summer night" is followed one after another for nine months).

King is a brave man. He crossed from the Falls to the Shankill at a time when it could have gotten him killed. He ignored the threat of political kneecapping from the GOP leadership to say that Monica Lewinsky was a non-issue. And now he has written a novel, tossing a softball to his natural critics who could pick apart the flaws of the work until he bleeds.

Peter King is no Ian Fleming, but "Terrible Beauty" is an essential book for students of Irish history.

(James E. Mulvaney works as a private investigator for KPMG Forensic and Litigation Services. A former journalist, he won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. He was a Newsday correspondent in Dublin and Belfast in 1984 and 1985.)

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