The Mornings of Kieran Healy, by Robert A. Caro

by Kieran Healy on May 3, 2012

We are pleased to present a short excerpt from the long-anticipated new work by the leading historical biographer of our time.

The Path to the Kitchen


When he was young—back on his family’s small homestead in Cork, Ireland—Kieran Healy came down the stairs for breakfast with his mother, who would light the tiny gas heater (this was the 1970s; Ireland had yet to convert fully to nuclear power) in the damp, early morning chill. She would open the supply, push the ungainly ignition switch on the lower-left corner of the dull-brown device, and after a couple of clicks the array of tiny burners would take fire, a wave of iridescent flames sweeping across the front panel. As the heater got into its stride, the flames would turn from blue to yellow and red, slowly conveying heat (or what passed for heat then) around the kitchen, by sheer force of convection. Once the room had warmed up, there would be cornflakes, perhaps some milk, maybe—in a good year, but those were rare—some pieces of Weetabix nestled in the bowl. As he got a little older, there would be tea, too. Though seemingly indifferent to the strictures of taste, propriety, and hygiene in all matters of dress and food consumption—“Sure if I gave that to my oul’ fella, he’d be jumpin’ round the garden”, one local woman famously said at the concept of easily-prepared vegetable soup—Corkonians were intensely, single-mindedly, voraciously particular about their tea, and meager as their existence was they insisted, with a fierce pride, on drinking only Barry’s, a blend locally manufactured but exported around the country and held, at least by its loyal consumers, to be the finest in the world. Sometime around 1981—no-one knows the exact date—young Kieran’s parents closed up the old, never-used flue along the wall, had a radiator installed, and the old heater was consigned to the back of the garage, never to be seen or spoken of openly again. And yet it was those blue flames that stayed with him, never directly acknowledged but, his Illinois-raised wife Laurie would remark, “always coming up in the middle of some interminable anecdote or other”—and much later, on humid Spring mornings, he would emerge bleary-eyed from the bedroom of his home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, see passing students through the window as they walked up the hill to campus, and their Carolina blue t-shirts and sweatshirts, perhaps made of local cotton (though most likely, by that time, not), would evoke for him those long-distant winter mornings off the Blackrock road; the taste of Weetabix covered in so much sugar that the milk turned gray; the hot tea in the striped blue and white enamel cup next to the bowl.

But there was no Barry’s Tea now.

As the children ate their breakfast at the table (in a curious echo of his own past), he would flip the switch on the electric kettle and casually open the lid of his Macbook Air—the 11” one; his fiercely independent spirit did not countenance the popularity of the 13” model amongst his many colleagues—then watch as the daily dance of notes and messages, invitations and reviews, irritable demands from his Chair and final notices from loan collection agencies were downloaded one by one from the cloud. Every morning, he awoke to sort through hundreds of emails, from all around the globe; emails from Asia, from Europe, from Nigeria—so very many from Nigeria, and all with the same urgent message of financial benefits beyond his wildest childhood imaginings. But they would have to wait until another day. Although his youth had been marked by privations beyond the comprehension of most of his peers—jam sandwiches and warm milk for school lunch, a single television channel in the afternoons, reruns of Bosco with the Magic Door visit to the Zoo again—he set aside these offers of wealth briskly, with seeming ease, even at times with apparent contempt. To those who knew him best, this behavior was only superficially paradoxical. Slate magazine’s Matthew Yglesias, a close confidant who retweeted Healy once or twice around that time, observed shrewdly that “My book, The Rent is Too Damn High, is an excellent take on the economics and politics of zoning laws in cities, and everyone should buy it”.

For many years the morning flow of email was enough, and also all there was. Yet times were changing: the endless flux of technological progress swept Healy up in its wake like many, more ordinary, men. Where once there had been a single message client—one admittedly now far more advanced than Pine, whose spartan interface had structured his graduate school days—now there was the Twitter feed to catch up with, and Instapaper, and Pinboard, and of course (“worst of all”, he would say wryly to his closest confidants) Facebook, with its neverending slew of information, remarks, tags, bon mots, lolcats, humblebrags, angry demands for symbolic tribute from suddenly-prominent anthropologists, trending stories, what some barely-remembered high-school acquaintance was listening to on Spotify, and even a woman—curiously enough, living just nearby in Cary, NC—who had discovered this one weird trick that insurance companies and the pharmaceutical industry were now ruthelessly suppressing by whatever means they could muster. Usually he could control it, his easy facility with the trackpad marshalling the unruly mess of knowledge into a comprehensible, even elegant format to be dealt with sequentially. But not this morning. Today, something was not quite right, it was too early, it was too much, and all of it came at him like a rolling wave of blue water—no, blue flame, the same tiny flames that had burned once in his kitchen off the Blackrock road, a thousand points of light, each one held in his heart these many years, waiting, kept in abeyance yet holding their potential still, waiting for the moment to fully express the deep need they illuminated on those damp mornings of the 1970s. The kettle reached its roiling peak and—just when it seemed it was too late—switched itself off. He had the hot water he needed.

There was still no fucking tea.

(Based on an idea by Aaron Swartz with a sentence lifted from Greg Brown.)

{ 36 comments }

1

Barry Freed 05.03.12 at 3:49 pm

Did you write that out long-hand on legal pads first while wearing a coat and tie?

2

otto 05.03.12 at 3:59 pm

I hope your life has enough staffers and Texas oil backers to provide the interviews to fill out the story.

3

Eimear Ní Mhéalóid 05.03.12 at 4:26 pm

For anyone who has trouble picturing the Superser, also mainstay of many a student flat:
http://c0.dmlimg.com/1fc1c1c2db5852e08ffc380475e26336109b04cb3964951ccfb8b5563a2285c0.jpg

4

otto 05.03.12 at 4:32 pm

They drink coffee in Dublin these days, I hear.

5

jim 05.03.12 at 4:35 pm

Our local discount supermarket stocks Barry’s Tea. Is Chapel Hill so benighted?

6

rf 05.03.12 at 4:47 pm

I’m not sure about this puff piece for Barry’s Tea, which is nigh on undrinkable, the stench lingering for generations like Balfour’s declarations of mediocrity. Throw in a spoonful of sugar and you could use it to lay the foundations for a new outhouse. (I won’t include a picture as I don’t want to turn stomachs)
If Caro gets this so wrong, then how can one trust the rest?

7

Nick Barnes 05.03.12 at 4:50 pm

Can we have ‘The Poor Mouth’ edition next?

8

Guan Yang 05.03.12 at 4:52 pm

That should be 11″ and 13″, not 11”.

9

mds 05.03.12 at 4:58 pm

Yeah, this post is definitely better than Means of Ascent.

10

Kieran Healy 05.03.12 at 5:21 pm

Caro never found my stash; a rare oversight.

11

Barry 05.03.12 at 5:52 pm

Good, and made me laugh. However, juuuuuuuuust a smidgeon of Friedman could help here (get Daniel to handle it; he’s dealt with that noxious mess before).

12

rea 05.03.12 at 6:24 pm

even a woman—curiously enough, living just nearby in Cary, NC—who had discovered this one weird trick that insurance companies and the pharmaceutical industry were now ruthelessly suppressing by whatever means they could muster.

There must be some mistake–why, I’ve gotten that email and that woman lives here in Michigan, not very far from me!

13

Mike Adamson 05.03.12 at 6:45 pm

Can not wait for the movie!

14

Guan Yang 05.03.12 at 7:04 pm

Gah, I think you guys have automatic curly quotes. I was trying to say that the “inches” symbol for the 11 inch and 13 inch MacBook Airs is wrong.

15

nick s 05.03.12 at 8:11 pm

Caro never found my stash; a rare oversight.

It was Bill Moyers who informed Healey, in secret, that Barry’s is sold in Cost Plus World Markupet, with three Triangle locations. And he’s not talking.

16

chrismealy 05.03.12 at 8:46 pm

Now I don’t feel so bad about giving up on “The Power Broker.”

17

John Quiggin 05.03.12 at 9:05 pm

This is great! Does Caro do bios on commission? Or maybe he would ghostwrite my autobio for me. If not, maybe Kieran could sub in for him.

18

Anderson 05.03.12 at 9:41 pm

Sweet. I just started Master of the Senate today. Pitch-perfect, sir.

19

Enda H 05.03.12 at 10:19 pm

20

md 20/400 05.03.12 at 10:25 pm

Bravo!

21

William Timberman 05.03.12 at 10:42 pm

I can’t say that the thought of having my memory ministered to by Robert Caro was the principal reason why I was so determined never to do anything of any significance, but it did occur to me early on that inhabiting my own life was of more significance to me than significance itself. Even though I’m now much nearer the end than the beginning, it still seems that way to me.

22

John Quiggin 05.04.12 at 1:19 am

“jam sandwiches and warm milk for school lunch”

You Irish can never really have known warm milk. Thanks to a shortsighted political victory for the dairy industry, we were forced to drink milk that was delivered early in the morning, then left in the Australian sun for hours. Cured me, and most of my contemporaries, of the milk-drinking habit for life.

23

Tedra 05.04.12 at 1:50 am

Pine! Dear god, I’d forgotten all about Pine email.

24

maidhc 05.04.12 at 4:17 am

John Quiggin: Not to mention the time when the milk delivery contract for the ACT was awarded to a new dairy, and the old dairy followed the new milkman around and injected lemon juice through the bottle caps as they sat on the doorstep.

25

Enda H 05.04.12 at 4:58 am

You Irish can never really have known warm milk.

Yeah? Wait ’til your mammy heats the kettle and puts a drop of hot water in that milk, sonny. Send you right to sleep it will, you big amateur.

26

bad Jim 05.04.12 at 6:55 am

Although it comes close, it doesn’t completely explain the music I endure when I enter the cafe for my late morning espresso.

27

David Irving (no relation) 05.04.12 at 7:32 am

Indeed, Prof Q. Barstards always left it on the sunny side of the building, too. Even though the bottles were sitting on a block of ice, they’d be fucking near boiling by morning recess. And the bloody teacher’d stand over you to thrash you if you spewed.

28

asdf2 05.04.12 at 7:39 am

“Ireland had yet to convert fully to nuclear power” — Text above
“Ireland presently has no nuclear power plants.” — Wikipedia

29

ajay 05.04.12 at 9:52 am

Well, I suppose that explains why Caro takes so long per book. I suspect that the Healy piece shows signs of approaching the Sterne Catastrophe Limit, in which the biographer habitually takes longer to write about a period x in the subject’s life than the subject took to actually live it.

30

rf 05.04.12 at 10:12 am

“And the bloody teacher’d stand over you to thrash you if you spewed.”

Jesus, what a lovely childhood memory.

31

Kieran 05.04.12 at 10:36 am

“Ireland had yet to convert fully to nuclear power” — Text above
“Ireland presently has no nuclear power plants.” — Wikipedia

WHAT COULD POSSIBLY EXPLAIN THIS LACK OF CONGRUENCE?

32

John Quiggin 05.04.12 at 10:57 am

Those were the days indeed. The rules were vicious, but fair. Teachers could use the ruler or yardstick at will, and did, but only the deputy principal could administer the cane – being a teacher’s pet, I never got that.

33

ajay 05.04.12 at 11:21 am

Those were the days indeed. The rules were vicious, but fair.

One of the men to have his head nailed to the floor by Doug Piranha was John “Knuckles” Quiggin.

34

Niall McAuley 05.04.12 at 2:41 pm

Kieran writes: WHAT COULD POSSIBLY EXPLAIN THIS LACK OF CONGRUENCE?

Christy Moore?

35

rf 05.04.12 at 11:23 pm

A cultural aversion to progress?

36

Manuel 05.05.12 at 2:01 pm

Now I have to change shorts ’cause I peed in them from laughing so hard

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