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Richard Eder

The All of It by Jeannette Haien (David R. Godine: $14.95; 122 pp.)

August 03, 1986|Richard Eder

Father Declan is a 63-year-old priest in the West of Ireland; a self-sufficient man, seemingly, and a redoubtable angler.

In a short novel, whose lyricism alternates between a considerable power of evocation and a strenuously Irished-up syntax, Jeannette Haien confronts this downright man of rules with an undermining torrent of life; and undermines him.

"The All of It" is a curious work; self-indulgent and somewhat awkward, but with an intriguing aftertaste.

In brief scenes scattered through the book, we see Father Declan obstinately working over a salmon stream in the drizzling cold rain. He is tormented by midges, by a slovenly and poor-spirited Ghillie, or assistant, and, almost to the end, by a persistent lack of fish.

He is all there for us readers--thanks to Haien's way with the lure and boggy discomfort of serious fishing--but he is only partly there for himself. He is, in fact, in crisis; set off by the death, a few days before, of Kevin, an old friend and parishioner, and by the extraordinary relation made to him by Enda, Kevin's seeming wife.

But they were not married, Kevin tells the priest before he died. Declan visits Enda to comfort her and to hear her story. She is avid and fearful to tell it; he is avid and fearful to hear it. This avidity charges the atmosphere between them, and it charges Enda's account of the strange life she and Kevin lived ever since they were children in their father's remote farmhouse in the Donegal hills. They were brother and sister.

Enda's story is a wild and remarkable one, as we hear it through Declan's recollection while fishing. She and Kevin were brutalized by a father driven mad by the death of his wife, and they lived in a complete isolation on the barren farm. "It was like we weren't known as being alive," she recalled.

By the time they reached adolescence, the father took to locking them in for days at a time while he went off. Finally, they broke out and ran away together, passing themselves off as man and wife while looking for work, and eventually settling in an abandoned cottage.

Haien's account of their wandering has both a note of strangeness and a cheerful picaresque energy. But it is only background for what is happening between Declan and Enda as she tells it. He is being seduced; not so much by Enda as by her life and, more than that, by life itself.

To his thirst to hear more, she sets down conditions that bring him further and further away from his priesthood. Before she will tell it, he must agree to publish a false death notice, naming Enda and Kevin as man and wife. She refuses his invitation to speak in the confessional; when he tries to insist, she threatens to remain silent. She admits to a single sexual episode with her brother, and when Declan questions her further, she confronts him with the alternative: He can be her friend, or he can be her priest, but not both.

Each time, Declan gives way so as not to be cut off; the energy of her wandering history has become necessary to him. Her life has a greater authority than his priesthood; at the end, he is visiting her at incautious hours; and there is an all-but-declared spirit of arousal between them.

It is not physical, and it is not conclusive. Haien has the artistry to put no definite ending to her story. All we know is that Enda--earth mother, spirit of life, or what have you--has brought Declan out of his world of rules and constriction.

God and belief don't seem to come into it; and that is a serious flaw, under the circumstances. Declan is a splendid and lifelike figure as a fisherman--finally, he lands an enormous salmon; symbol, no doubt, of his new life--but with Enda, he is so much the suppliant and apologizer, and he is won over so unconditionally that he becomes either unconvincing or uninteresting. Enda is drawn well, but she would be a lot more impressive if she had more than a straw man to set ablaze.

Haien writes with an Irish lilt; it's a good lilt, sometimes, but it splashes over. When Enda tells about the absence of cars in her youth, there is an agreeable jauntiness to her saying that "It was a creature's four legs that was the get-about and get-done of the average man."

But "the provoke and claw of his sin against her" (Kevin's lovemaking with Enda) is high literary blarney; so are such lines of dialogue as these between Declan and Enda:

" 'Aye,' he answered, his voice bedded, as hers had been, in marvelment." Or--Enda is speaking--" 'tell me,' her voice in the fur of a coax."

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