Denis Hamill's novels aren't mysteries, but there's a mystery in them: Why must good men be treated so badly? In "House on Fire," a Brooklyn firefighter's dream of a muscular but warm Irish American family life was destroyed when his foreign-born wife left him without explanation. Now, in "Fork in the Road," a young filmmaker from Queens stakes his career and his happiness on what seems to be a losing bet: Gina Furey, a lovely but larcenous Irish gypsy.
It isn't as if Colin Coyne lacks female companionship. He's handsome and glib, sure of his talent, able to outbox seasoned street fighters. But Gina, as her own Dublin slang would put it, is "the crack"--a mixture of fun and danger he hasn't experienced before. Colin meets her when she tries to pick his pocket in a pub; pretending to himself that he's "researching" her as a potential movie character, he falls in love with her.
Hamill, always an engaging popular novelist, has improved since "House on Fire." That story was marred by the suddenness and totality of the wife's betrayal. She was more of a hole in the narrative than a character--unlike Gina, who is complex and vivid and blazingly alive, capable of making Colin's infatuation with her seem perfectly natural.
At 21, Gina has a child, maybe a husband, and two fathers--the nominal one a resident of Dublin's Ballytara slums; the real one, she thinks, an American mafioso. She's always on the lookout for dark-haired Yank tourists who might lead her to her "da," which is why she chose Colin's pocket to pick: She mistook his black Irish looks for "Eyetalian."
Gina is gutter-mouthed and devout, callous and kind, flirtatious and elusive, and she comes with her own supporting cast: members of Ireland's "traveler" or "tinker" or "knacker" clans. In previous books, Hamill has demonstrated his ear for dialogue and his ability to portray the Irish American scene in which he grew up. Now he shows the same skill in rendering a milieu that, in Colin's exasperated words, is "200 years behind the rest of Western civilization."
Tinkers, like the Fureys and their feuding relatives, the Lynches, have mostly stopped roaming Ireland's byways in "caravans" and wagons, but, like gypsies elsewhere, they have remained a marginal group, feeling they have a right to rip off a society that discriminates against them.
The same qualities that, in Gina, appeal to Colin--her daring, her energy, her ability to live unreflectingly in the moment--are less attractive in her relatives. They cheat, steal, fight, beg, abuse their women, cling to the dole and, perversely and pitiably, fail to recognize that Ireland's growing prosperity has offered them a way out.
When Colin gets Gina pregnant and takes her to America, her family follows like a plague of locusts. Their depredations are both awful and hilarious. An old woman "hoovers" a rug with a lawn mower. Young women shoplift from Rodeo Drive stores for clothes with which to entice and scam rich businessmen.
Colin's virtues--his love for Gina and the children--make him put up with this longer than he should. What's agony for him, though, is a pleasure for us. Colin is a bit too good to be true, after all, and he has nothing new to observe about such things as the shallowness and duplicity of Hollywood. But whenever the Fureys and the Lynches come back into the story, it shifts into high gear again, all the way to the over-quick, cop-out ending.