Every spring, the city of Galway hosts the Cuirt International Festival of Literature. Ireland's premier literary event, it draws the cognoscenti and the country's leading writers and critics. Finding myself there last year but uncertain which events to attend, I let others lead and followed a gaggle of Ireland's well-known and established writers, who were going to listen to a young woman who had just published her first book of stories. The buzz was that she was the real thing. I heard Claire Keegan and was thunderstruck.
Keegan read "Men and Women," a story in her impressive debut collection "Antarctica." Set in contemporary and rural Ireland (small farms, muddy cows), the tale turns on a gesture: Because of a bad hip, Da never gets out of his car to open the gate but expects his wife to do so, even when she's wearing her best dress for a night out. But, his daughter observes, Da's hip isn't bad enough to prevent him from flirting and whirling other women around at the Christmas dance. Humiliated again, on the trip home, her mother does not get out of the car when the time comes; instead, complaining, Da is obliged to get out and open the gate, and then he is stunned when his wife slides behind the steering wheel and drives for the first time in her life, leaving him behind, hat in hand.
Keegan's feminism, apparent here, is also present in "Quare Name for a Boy," the story of a young woman come home from England to make an announcement to the fellow she had an affair with over the Christmas holidays. She's pregnant and altogether nervous about meeting her lover again and telling him. But when he's absolutely peachy about the news--for example, not knowing if it's a boy or girl, she suggests the name "Daphne" and he endearingly responds, "It's a quare name for a boy"--this moment of saccharine goodness makes her realize that the superficial person sitting opposite her is the kind of man the Irish call a "lad," and she resolves to raise the child by herself. Thinking of how her aunts dote on their menfolk, she concludes: "I will not be a woman who shelters her man same as he's a boy. That part of my people ends with me."
Oppression and revolt are, of course, the rhythm of Ireland's political history; so Irish feminism needs to be understood as an echo and logical trajectory of the country's search for liberated identity in the post-colonial years since 1916. Keegan's story "Sisters" signals that these issues needn't be figured only in male-female relations. Like the Emigrant, Louisa was the sister who left for England, married, had children and became wealthy. Like the Native, Betty stayed home, milked the cows, took care of Da and went unloved. Now Louisa has come back and expects Betty to brush her hair every night as she did when they were young. Instead, long-suffering Betty cuts off her sister's long tresses. It is the story of Cinderella's revenge and, of course, Ireland is the Cinderella of its little Atlantic neighborhood.
Keegan offers a number of sympathetic portraits of the Other Woman. The new wife in "Burns" finds herself sweeping out spider webs in a cottage formerly occupied by her husband's first wife and stamping on cockroaches with her stepchildren, who are haunted by memories of their abusive mother. In "Love in the Tall Grass," Cordelia is the Other Woman: On the last day of the 20th century, she goes to the beach to meet the doctor, her lover who promised nine years ago to meet her there at just this moment. But the doctor's wife also appears, and the story stops at an incredible moment of tension as each of them wonders who will be the first one to depart.
When it comes to dialogue, Keegan has oblique genius, as in the title story "Antarctica": "'I'm the loneliest man in the world,' he said. 'How about you?' 'I'm married.' She said it before she knew what she was saying." With incident, Keegan has an unerring sense of odd pathos: In "The Ginger Rogers Sermon," a farm family employs as their hired hand a huge but "slow" adult, and one night their curious daughter sexually explores this gentle giant; the next morning they find he has hung himself. With conclusions, Keegan is unprecedented: In "Passport Soup" Frank Corso's 9-year-old daughter is the missing child on the milk carton (she mysteriously disappeared one day from the family cornfield), and Frank's wife arbitrarily blames him for losing her and hasn't spoken to him for months. But he begins to feel better when his wife serves him a soup in which are floating nine passport-size photos of their daughter: "It is a start," he thinks. "It is better than nothing."
That's not to say this story collection is flawless. Oddly enough, Keegan, who studied for a time in New Orleans, occasionally misfires when she uses the United States as a locale: Four of these tales seem the unfortunate result of watching too many Sean Penn movies because they are cornball accounts of honky-tonk lives, full of divorcees and guys named Butch. On the other hand, Keegan's "Love in the Tall Grass" is the best short story this reviewer has encountered in a month of Sundays and as many book reviews.
Reading these stories is like coming upon work by Ann Beattie or Raymond Carver at the start of their careers. That's how we all felt, sitting there last year listening to Keegan read in Galway. There, among the leading writers of her country, perched on the westernmost edge of Europe, at the start of the new millennium, Keegan left the podium to the hush of profound awe and then the thunder of applause that greets the fresh appearance of talent.