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Book Review : Irish Folks Tale Overdone Down Under

March 16, 1987|CAROLYN SEE

Missus by Ruth Park (St. Martin's Press: $15.95)

In ancient times, when one was a graduate student, one might find oneself in some book-lined room, listening to a professorial codger reminisce.

The codger might kick back, armed dually with a gin gimlet and a relentless memory, and let those anecdotes ride--through the cocktail hour and the high-carbohydrate casserole and the key lime pie and after that, and later than that.

You'd hear, perhaps, about John and Alf and Josie and Francis and Martin and Steve, and you'd have to keep nodding your head and looking intelligent because, since this professor held your academic future in his hand, you could never afford to blurt out, who in the frumongs are John and Alf and Josie and Francis and Martin and Steve?

Pointless Anecdotes

The truth was, so secure was the codger in his domain, so sure of his position in his designated world, that he could go on and on forever with his pointless anecdotes. In an alarmingly real way, his listeners did not exist except as a kind of human wallpaper, an animated backdrop for the telling of his tales.

Ruth Park, author of "Missus," must be of this same stamp. Forty years ago she wrote two novels about the Irish immigrants' experience in Australia, "The Harp in the South," and "Poor Man's Orange." (She wrote 38 more books, and that's very nice, who could quarrel with it?) These aforementioned two novels concern the fates of three families: the Darcys, the Tookeys and the Kilkers, "immigrants," the jacket reminds us, "who left the poverty of their native land with the bright hope of making a new start in a distant country."

A Kind of Prequel

Additional publicity material also states that the above two novels have been read by more than 2.5 million people, have been out of print in the United States since the middle '50s but will both be reprinted later this year. "Missus" is a kind of prequel to the above works. The three books together constitute a "publishing event." "So many readers have written to me asking," writes Ruth Park, "what Grandma and Mumma and Hughie were like when they were young that I decided to find out for myself."

The result, "Missus," is one weird book. If what the publicity release says is true--and why should it not be?--the Darcys, the Tookeys and the Kilkers are already part of Australian folk knowledge. Some people, somewhere, know exactly what this story is about.

"Missus" has packed a thousand pages' worth of story into 247 pages that read like an outline. The result is maddeningly unreadable, almost like trying to decipher a foreign language. The prose itself is pitched at a kind of comfortable middle-school level. "She's soft. Soft as butter." Or " 'Oh boy!' he thought. 'That little tick!' " But the plot itself is so sick, so utterly based on a knowledge of what came after, that every time you put the book down to answer the phone, you have to go back 20 pages to figure out what's going on, who these people are, and so on.

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