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Book Review : Nourishing, Substantial Slices of Life

February 18, 1987|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

High Ground by John McGahern (Viking; $15.95)

"Slice of life" has a musty, outdated sound to it; not at all the kind of thing we look for in the novels and short stories we read nowadays.

Of course. Whatever turns and returns our literary fashions may take, and no matter how cyclical they may be, we do run up against a problem when it comes to the well-made morsel of realism. What use is a slice of life if life is Wonder Bread?

You have to toast it dry, and spread it with some kind of pungent or distancing condiment. Hyper-realism, or K mart realism, or magical realism seem to be required if you are going to try to slice the American loaf.

The Irish writer Thomas McGahern goes along quite oblivious to any of this. There is not the slightest discontinuity between the surface of his stories and their deep resonances. Their life is dense and varied. It is a cottage loaf he is hacking at; nourishing, substantial and with the baker's heavy and individual thumb on it.

Sustaining, Choking

McGahern takes his time and place as he finds them. Dublin or the Irish countryside--alternate versions of the provincial; his Dubliners have left their villages but not vice versa--and a present day that has by no means cut its connections with the past. The Irish past may be a murderous hand but it is not a dead one. It is capable of sustaining even as it chokes.

Nothing new here. It is Joyce's theme, Frank O'Hara's, and sometimes William Trevor's; but just as they goaded and moved us by spinning their individual and unmistakably colored threads from local to universal, McGahern has his own color. He is a quieter, more subdued and probably smaller artist, but there is no question about his artistry.

The question, more likely, is how he does it. His stories avoid shapes; they follow a passage of time and disembark as arbitrarily and inconclusively as life itself.

In fact, only two stories in this collection come anywhere close to possessing a climax or an ending. And for all their allure--McGahern at his weakest can be slight, but never unalluring--they are not the most memorable.

"Like All Other Men" has mystery and excitement, handled with a restraint that only manages to sharpen them. A young man is attracted to an older woman at a Dublin dance. She has a directness and originality that transcend the advances and retreats of Irish courting conventions. After they spend a night together in a hotel--at her suggestion--she reveals that she is about to enter a nursing order of nuns.

Appropriate Conclusions

The surprise manages to be climactic and believable at the same time, but it tends to supersede the current of life we feel in the protagonist. Her ending eclipses her. Similarly, a gentle story about a love affair between a middle-aged Dublin official and an American woman subsides into its own happy, though entirely appropriate conclusion.

The most memorable of these stories will establish an individual as central among a group of surrounding characters. And then, as time passes, the focus pulls back, and the secondary lives take on an importance of their own while the protagonist recedes into their company.

In two stories that work as one--"Eddie Mac" and "The Conversion of William Kirkwood"--we get a sense of life as a fire spreading, catching, and relinquishing its characters one by one. At first, the crumbling estate of the Kirkwoods--Protestant gentry in decline--is only background to the story of Eddie Mac, their stableman. A local soccer hero who dims when he twists his knee, Eddie goes into a gradual decline and ends up stealing six of the Kirkwood prize cattle and running off to England.

He leaves behind Annie May, the kitchen maid whom he has gotten pregnant. The Kirkwoods--a widowed, beekeeping father and a dreamy, stargazing son--keep Annie in their service and help her raise her daughter, Lucy. Scintillating and educated beyond her station, Lucy become the story's emotional center. But only for a while. The focus passes to the younger Kirkwood who, with his father dead, gradually moves closer to his Catholic neighbors, filling in the social and religious gulf that has cut across Irish history like a mortal wound.

In "Old-Fashioned," perhaps the finest of the stories, the young son of the local police sergeant--an ardent nationalist and former IRA man--becomes the protege of a retired military couple who are the last remnants of the local Protestant ascendancy. There is a brief, passing climax; but that is not the point of a story that moves like a river, and that carries us inconclusively through a generation, and half a dozen shifting lives.

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