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The Talk of the Irish : HARP by John Gregory Dunne (Simon & Schuster: $18.95; 235 pp.; 0-671-68852-9)

August 27, 1989|Jack Miles | Miles is The Times' book editor. and

Harp? Try knell. Though this Irish-American memoir includes a trip to Ireland, John Gregory Dunne has less unfinished business with the Emerald Isle than he does with the Grim Reaper. But then: Don't we all? And what of it? You can't talk of the Irish anyway without talking, soon enough, of the dead.

"I call myself a harp," Dunne writes, "because I like the sound of the word--it is short, sharp and abusive." I could call myself a harp too; but if I did, it would be because I find the word short, sharp and roughly affectionate. It's a good one-word title for Dunne's book, all right, but not if you hear it his way, only if you hear it mine. Harp Lager doesn't owe its name to an ethnic slur.

"Harp" is rather like the life story of an Irish writer as you might hear it in a single long night in a bar, especially if you were Irish too, and the writer could take the corresponding liberties. In Irish company, it is never bad form to bring up your "people." In fact, if too much time passes and you have failed to do so, you may receive a gentle invitation.

And when you accept, a certain disarming readiness in your companion--a sense that for him, the family question is not an idle one--will mix with the drink and loosen your tongue. And in short order you'll be telling about your poor younger brother, the sweetest, dearest one of the lot of you, and to end that way. And then there was your niece, her that was killed, and what you hope happens to her murderer there in prison when his fellow convicts get their hands on him. (I spare you the details, but in a bar I might not; and in "Harp," Dunne doesn't.)

It's not against the rules to talk even of old nuns and elderly maiden aunts (not that these categories are mutually exclusive), though you'll most likely be doing that in connection with a story about the wake and funeral of one of them, and maybe the reading of a will. And then what does that kind of talk lead up to but the fate that awaits us all? And then invariably the talk gets warmer and better, and the company dearer, as Death--banished but remembered--waits outside in the dark lane, and the waning of the night is like the waning of life itself.

Death is only the penultimate Irish topic, however. The ultimate topic is regret. Lost loves. Ruinous mistakes. Vanished youth. Squandered fortunes. Broken promises. And for these, you must remain through the last round.

"Harp" declines the last round. It stands in the door with its cap in its hand, willing its eyes dry, holding its tongue, because that kind of talk, you know, with the tears and all, what good does it do you? Well, the Irish know what kind of good it does them; but since "Harp" has held up its end of the conversation so well for so long, no one will mind, much, if it leaves a little early.

John Gregory Dunne was born in Hartford, Conn., the son of a physician wealthy enough to have servants and a six-car garage, the grandson--on his mother's side--of a banker, in fact, a bank-founder. His irritation with

the Yankee establishment of the Northeast is not the kind felt by the

Irish who didn't make it but the special kind felt by the Irish who did. For them, after the fading of the gross differences of wealth and education between the Irish and the English in America, what remained was a residual difference of style, a difference whose meaning to the Irish Dunne catches brilliantly as follows:

"My parents' house . . . looked out on the house of that quintessential Yank Thomas Norval Hepburn, a urologist and pioneer in social medicine, but best known as the father of Katharine Hepburn; our summer house in Saybrook was only a hop, skip and jump from the Hepburns' house in Fenwick. I must confess here a certain lack of enthusiasm for the public and cinematic persona of Katharine Hepburn--the feisty lady of quality, a tad feistier and with a tad more quality than anyone else within range. She has always seemed to me all cheekbones and opinions, and none of the opinions has ever struck me as terribly original or terribly interesting, dependent as they are on a rather parochial Hartford definition of quality, as reinterpreted by five decades' worth of Studio unit publicists. This obiter dictum is, I admit, not a majority view."

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