Keith Hopper's study of Flann O'Brien is one of the very few essential works of Irish lit crit to be published in the last twenty years. Hopper's basic thesis is that O'Brien's most famous book, "At Swim-Two-Birds", is not his most brilliant and imaginative work. "At Swim", or "AS2B" as we O'Brien experts call it, is really a half-hearted venture in late modernism, spoiled by the author's diffidence, carelessness and sentimentality. He reaches his full powers in the savage black comedy "An Beal Bocht", which unfortunately for most people in the world was written in the Irish language, and the thoroughly eerie tale of robbery and guilt "The Third Policeman". Hopper shows how the latter book is one of the first full-blown works of postmodernism, a metafictional head-trip that prefigures Italo Calvino by about thirty years.
After the book was rejected a couple of times, O'Brien shoved the MS into a drawer (it wasn't published until after his death) and ended up frittering away his enormous talent in a decreasingly entertaining newspaper column, throwing off a couple of lame novels before his early death. It's a sad story, and Hugh Kenner has convincingly argued elsewhere that O'Brien himself was alarmed by the implications of "The Third Policeman" and made a conscious decision not to publish it.
Hopper's arguments about the status and significance of postmodernism in Ireland are a sorely-needed counter to the generally blandly realistic mode of fiction that has dominated Irish writing since Frank O'Connor got his first big royalty cheque. "The Third Policeman" is funnier, scarier and more profoundly alarming than any of John Banville's jeux de desespoirs (Banville always reads to me as though he's been translated from the Czech, anyway). An important and neglected book. Irish culture could be a lot more fun for everybody involved if Mr. Hopper had been listened to.