In his debut novel, The Companion, Irish playwright and journalist Lorcan Roche adeptly walks the tricky line between comedy and tragedy, elevating what could be a clichéd story about redemption and hard-learned lessons to a higher level.
Cynical and bitter, Trevor is a recent arrival to New York City from Ireland, where he takes a job as a nurse and companion to Ed, a teenager with muscular dystrophy. As the story unfolds, readers discover that Trevor has a spotty history working with a disabled population. At a previous job, he took his charges out on a shoplifting expedition, during which one man stole an entire turkey. Trevor’s strange way of treating his patients may seem like grounds for firing, and the stories Trevor tells about his interactions with his patients will seem harsh at first, especially the way he picks on their appearances, but the people in his charge love the fact that he’s as blunt and callous to them as he is to anyone. As readers go deeper into the book, Trevor’s stories take on a more introspective tone, and it becomes obvious that he had great affection for his patients. It’s the slow reveal, the transition from comedy to genuine emotions that make The Companion effective.
Even before starting his job with Ed, Trevor sees that his parents treat him with disdain, all but ignoring him. Ed’s morbidly obese mother tries to seduce Trevor, and Ed’s father only discusses money with him. Trevor quickly befriends Ed by telling him outrageous and false tales of casual sex at prog rock shows, delighting the teenager to no end. Ed takes to Trevor because he does not treat him with pity, which is the kindest way of treating someone who has been alternately ignored and coddled his whole life. In this way, Trevor shows Ed what the real world is like, both beautiful and cruel. Trevor says he sometimes felt like a hospital DJ, “spinning yarns, keeping them distracted from snide reality. And if you ask me, there’s nothing wrong with lying to sick people, nothing wrong with running out a harmless spoof to a class full of people with no arms, no legs and no dreams to speak of.”
The story is told through the eyes and mind of the cynical Trevor, and as he takes care of Ed readers discover that he’s been running away from his life since the death of his ailing mother. Roche makes great use of transportation as a metaphor: Before he meets Ed, Trevor is constantly on trains and buses, quickly trying to escape himself. When he begins to work with Ed, readers see him walking more, going to parks and appreciating the world. Trevor’s inner monologue is reminiscent of Ignatius J. Reilly from A Confederacy of Dunces. He even resembles Reilly, with his massive frame and giant head. But Trevor’s cynicism hides a tender heart. As the book goes on, it becomes clear that he has tremendous empathy for the disabled and downtrodden in life. In India, he spends time with a blind man with no arms, and while he makes fun of him as much as he would anyone, the affection he feels for this man is clear.
Because Trevor has a contentious relationship with his remaining family, he seeks solace by attaching himself to chronically ill people, as if he’s trying to recreate the closeness he had with his mother when he cared for her while she was ill. But he gets as much out of his relationship with them as they do from their relationship with him. He says of Ed and his own mother that people like them are “the real poets and painters of this world. And isn’t it amazing how they can colour in a whole new season behind your head which, when you stop to think about it, is no longer revolving like a dish in a microwave with the same dull thoughts going round and round and round all fuckin’ day?”
The Companion is full of juicy symbolism. References to eyes, doors, and holes are sprinkled throughout the book, both open and closed. Everyone in the book can be described in terms of whether or not their eyes or doors are opened, whether or not they are part of the world or not. Ed’s eyes are open, sometimes fearfully, but his door remains closed until Trevor metaphorically opens it up. Ed’s parents keep their own eyes closed to their son and his illness.
But the true star of the book is Trevor’s inner monologues and his distinctive way of telling a story. Whether he’s lying to Ed, or telling the reader about a misadventure, the language is rich, evocative, and funny. When readers think about Trevor’s stories, they may wonder if he’s spinning yarns for them. Roche provides dreams and diversion for the reader like Trevor does for his patients.