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February 28, 1993|CHARLES SOLOMON

HIGH GROUND by John McGahern (Penguin: $10; 156 pp.). John McGahern's beautifully wrought stories are set against the backdrop of 20th-Century Ireland: not Joyce's richly bustling Dublin but small country towns, where people are too busy with the daily business of life to realize they've become picturesque. After establishing a setting in a few deft sentences--"There might as well have been no other room in the big stone house but the kitchen, as the rain beat on the slates and windows and swirled about the yard outside"--McGahern examines the questions that trouble his characters: the social implications of a wealthy landowner's decision to convert to Catholicism or the difficulties farmers' sons encounter if they attend college and cease to know "their place" in the local hierarchy. Neither bitter nor romanticized, the stories in "High Ground" present an affecting portrait of a fading society.

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