By Jim Gavin
Fathers glory in bad jokes. Whenever I ask my dad whether or not a certain person is dead – usually an old actor, athlete, or politician I haven’t heard about in a while – he’ll say, “I hope so. They buried him.” This has been going on for over thirty years and yet, somehow, I never see it coming until it’s too late. My head drops a little, I stifle a groan. To his credit, my dad always delivers it in a virtuoso deadpan, as if he’s sitting at the Algonquin Round Table, instead of in his recliner, with the Dodger game on.
Ulysses didn’t really make sense to me until I got to the Cyclops chapter. Early in the day, Leopold Bloom attends the funeral of Paddy Dignam, and later he enters Barney Kiernan’s pub, where the quality has gathered:
-How’s Willy Murray those times, Alf?
-I don’t know, says Alf. I saw him just now in Capel street with Paddy Dignam. Only I was running after…
-You what? says Joe, throwing down the letters. With who?
-With Dignam, says Alf.
-Is it Paddy? says Joe.
-Yes, says Alf. Why?
-Don’t you know he’s dead? says Joe.
-Paddy Dignam! says Alf.
-Ay, says Joe.
-Sure I’m after seeing him not five minutes ago, says Alf, as plain as a pikestaff.
-Who’s dead? says Bob Doran.
-You saw his ghost then, says Joe, God between us and harm.
-What? says Alf. Good Christ, only five…What?….And Willy Murray with him, the two of them there near whatdoyoucallhim’s…What? Dignam dead?
-What about Dignam? says Bob Doran. Who’s talking about…?
-Dead! says Alf. He’s no more dead than you are.
-Maybe so, says Joe. They took the liberty of burying him this morning anyhow.
Apparently, my dad wasn’t very original. And neither was Joyce, whose divine reprobate of a father, John Joyce, often used this joke, which he probably heard from his father, or in a bar, or from his father, while in a bar. Readers can take many different approaches to Ulysses – Marxist, Freudian, etc – but I prefer to read it as one big bar joke. The scene above, its music and hoary humor, originates from the tongue of John Joyce.
John Stanislaus Joyce was a failure, quite possibly the biggest failure in Dublin, which would place him high in the running for biggest failure worldwide, but his many failures were always overshadowed by his enduring sense of grandeur. Particularly the grandeur of himself. At one time, the Joyce family had some money, but by the time James was born, it had been squandered by his father, who gallantly refused to let a few debts get him down. The Joyce clan grew large – John once described himself as the father of “ten or eleven children” – and on the streets of Dublin it was common to see them, after another eviction, moving en masse to new lodgings. The kids carried the bags and furniture, while their patriarch led them onward, holding aloft a framed engraving of the Joyce family crest. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Dedalus famously describes the career, or careers, of his father, Simon:
A medical student, an oarsman, a tenor, an amateur actor, a shouting politician, a small landlord, a small investor, a good fellow, a storyteller, somebody’s secretary, something in a distillery, a tax-gatherer, a bankrupt and at present a praiser of his own past.
James Joyce had the good fortune of being his father’s favorite, and he more or less adopted his father’s views on politics and religion. Champion of Parnell, Enemy of the priests. John was an encyclopedia of Dublin lore, and when Joyce was a boy, John would take him on long walks through Dublin, telling him which house Swift lived in, where so and so dropped dead, singing songs, telling jokes, creating the atmosphere that lives on every page of Ulysses. He was the kind of true local and man-about-town that is hard to imagine in our current age, in which we have all become reclusive know-it-alls armed with digital hate cannons. So John Joyce had a good side. The bad side – the drunken abuse he heaped on his long-suffering family – helped convince James Joyce to leave Ireland.
While in “exile,” Joyce lived as improvidently as his father, but stayed dedicated to his family and his art. In Stephen Hero, it is said of Mr Dedalus (Joyce spelled it “Daedalus” in the earlier book, in stricter accordance with Greek myth): “He had his son’s distaste for responsibility but not his courage.” Joyce wasn’t above paying himself a compliment, but it’s hard to deny him this truth. He stayed on good terms with his father, writing often and bugging him for details about people and places that he could put in his books. In Ulysses, Simon Dedalus is a peripheral figure, losing out on the theological shell game that connects Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom, but his appearences are always memorable for his wit and the eloquence of his wrath. In the Hades chapter, Simon rides to Dignam’s funeral with several locals, including Bloom, who sees Stephen passing in street and says to Simon:
-There’s a friend of yours gone by, Dedalus, he said.
-Who is that?
-Your son and heir.
Simon goes on to express his concers about poor helpless Stephen, his most cherished son, who has been hanging around with a disreputable cad, Buck Mulligan:
-He’s in with a lowdown crowd, Mr Dedalus snarled. That Mulligan is a contaminated bloody doubledyed ruffian by all accounts. His name stinks all over Dublin. But with the help of God and His blessed mother I’ll make it my business to write a letter one of those days to his mother or his aunt or whatever she is that will open her eye as wide as a gate. I’ll tickle his catastrophe, believe you me.
If the goal of every writer is to become the shame of their parents, as J.P. Donleavy once said, then Joyce failed. John tried reading Ulysses, but it didn’t hold his interest. He thought singing was Joyce’s true talent. Still, he was proud enough to describe his son, the author of the century’s greatest novel, as “a good kind of blackguard.”
For many years, Joyce considered returning to Ireland to visit his elderly father, but he never made it. John Joyce died in 1931, his last words: “Tell Jim he was born at six in the morning.” Joyce had recently written him with some astrological questions. They were always in each other’s thoughts. Joyce was crushed by sorrow and guilt and in a letter to Harriet Weaver, he wrote:
I was very fond of him always, being a sinner myself, and even liked his faults. Hundreds of pages and scores of characters in my books came from him. His dry (or rather wet) wit and his expression of face convulsed me often with laughter…I got from him his portraits, a waistcoat, a good tenor voice, and an extravagant licentious disposition.
And lots of bad jokes. Years before, when Joyce told his father about Nora Barnacle, John said, “She’ll stick to you.” Ladies and gentlemen, give it up for funny man, John Joyce!
Jim Gavin’s “Blooms + Baskets” column appears twice a year, “Blooms” on Bloomsday and “Baskets” as a preview to the NCAA basketball tournament. Read “Gogarty,” from Bloomsday 2009, here >>