“Cult” is a rather extreme term, calling to mind images of strange rituals or innocent young actresses being seduced to Scientology. But Barry McCrea, whose debut novel, “The First Verse,” is out this month from Carroll & Graf, applies it to more benign gatherings.
“I think that literary academia is sort of a cult of its own, and I think a very good one, in a lot of ways,” he says by phone from Italy’s Umbria region, where he is on vacation. “I mean, if you’re going to pick any cult to join, I think it’s a pretty good one.”
McCrea should know, having been a member of said group for years, first as a Spanish and French student at Trinity College and later studying for his Ph.D. in literature at Princeton University.
Currently dividing his time between his job as an assistant professor of comparative literature at Yale University and months traveling across Europe, McCrea chose to give his protagonist a considerably darker encounter with the cult phenomenon. Set in present-day Dublin, “The First Verse” follows Niall Lenihan, a freshman from a bourgeois Irish suburb studying French and English at Trinity College. While grappling with his homosexual awakening and the freedom provided by living away from home, Niall finds himself drawn to a pair of mysterious thirtysomethings whose obsessive literary rituals (they base their daily decisions on random lines chosen from books) lead him away from his friends and studies and into a dark secret society.
“He’s in a moment when the world seems to be a more bewildering place than he ever expected it to be, and there’s lots of clashing narratives he’s involved in,” says McCrea, 30, who grew up in a Dublin suburb, similar to Niall’s hometown. “And he hopes, like lots of us do, to find a penultimate story in the end, to find a kind of underlying narrative that explains it all. But, in fact, what he’s really doing is sewing together a kind of patchwork of reality out of all the different things he sees around him.”
Although Niall’s mystic seduction is not based on personal experience, McCrea argues it is merely an extrapolation of what any avid reader encounters. “I think when you start to read seriously, one of the first things that happens to you is you get overenthusiastic,” he says. “You start to think that literature has all the answers, that if you read enough, eventually you’ll come across the answer. And the truth is very different. In fact, you have to make the answers up yourself.”
This story first appeared in the June 16, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Niall’s search for these solutions in many ways parallels Ireland’s own struggle to construct a coherent identity. “He leaves home for the first time, he’s gay and he’s thinking about coming out. He discovers that the world is much bigger than he thought,” says McCrea. “It’s very similar to an insular society, what Ireland used to be. It’s like that society suddenly finding itself rich, at an international crossroad, and trying to figure out a consistent narrative for itself within that. The book is about that problem and that experience, as it pertains to Ireland and as it pertains to the protagonist. And then to all of us, essentially, in the end.”