Blood on the Border

Nothing Happens in Carmincross

by Benedict Kiely
Godine, 279 pp., $16.95

This is a funny book, always skirting the edge of horror, and finally going over the edge, but still mainly a funny book. Indeed what I find most impressive about Mr. Kiely is his capacity somehow to put horror in its place: that place remains terrifying, but it isn’t allowed to take over everything. It was important for Tolstoy that, even in the presence of death, two and two still make four. It is important for Mr. Kiely that, even when terrorists are in the neighborhood, a person should still be able to laugh.

Nothing Happens in Carmincross is about an Irish writer, Mervyn Kavanagh, who comes back to Ireland after spending some time in the United States. He has been away, it seems, long enough to feel a bit of a stranger, but not long enough really to have become one. Early on in a bar—most of the action, and inaction, goes on in some bar—he bumps into a celebration, which he guesses to be a wedding or a christening but which turns out to be an ordination. Someone makes a mildly anticlerical joke, and Mervyn refrains from making one himself:

He has been so long away from a Catholic church, in Ireland or anywhere else, that the thought of an ordination has not occurred to him. He knows now, for the first time since the disorientation of flying, that he is really back at home in Ireland: the fleering abrasive talk is only a sort of mask for a half-ashamed reverence. As a stranger in that particular place he is careful not to join in the mockery: by saying, for instance, that he thought they’d given up making priests altogether these days, not only in Ireland but in Rome itself, that the ones they made now seemed to suffer from planned obsolescence. His new merry friends might not assault him, but the fun might fade or the topic change.

Staring at a leaflet about the ordination Mervyn “goes into one of those trances that are the product of a mind disordered by odd information and aimless interests and reading.” But it is a trance in which he recalls something that actually happened, in the late nineteenth century in Tipperary:

Seventy-eight years ago on an Irish hillside a man and his friends, in all a party of thirteen, burned the man’s wife to death and buried her charred body in a nearby marsh. Some people who don’t know much about it call it a case of suspected witchcraft. But it wasn’t anything of the sort. One or more members of the sad thirteen thought that the woman was not the real woman but a changeling: that the fairies (a fatally corrupt word nowadays) or the Good People (as country folk in fear of their vengeance used politely to call them) had come out from their dwelling place under the ancient earth-mound or rath, close to the hillside farmhouse, and taken the real …

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Letters

The Color Red June 26, 1986