Big News from Small Worlds

The Collected Stories

by John McGahern
Knopf, 408 pp., $24.00

Ulverton

by Adam Thorpe
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 390 pp., $23.00

As they were controversial, they won him a sort of fame: some thought they were serious, well made, and compulsive…bringing things to light that were in bad need of light; but others maintained that they were humourless, morbid, and restricted to a narrow view that was more revealing of private obsessions than any truths about life or Irish life in general.”

Thus is described the work of the documentary film maker who is the central character of one of John McGahern’s stories: it is also, whether consciously or unconsciously on the author’s part, an accurate account of popular and critical attitudes toward McGahern’s own work. Throughout his career, beginning thirty years ago with his novel The Barracks, one of his best, to Amongst Women, which was nominated for a Booker Prize in 1990 and brought him the broad recognition that should have been his from the start, he has also produced a steady stream of short stories. These he has now collected into a single, substantial volume, adding two new tales, one of them surely a masterpiece.

McGahern is, at fifty-eight, one of the last Irish writers to have suffered directly at the hands of a Church-dominated state. In 1965 his novel The Dark was banned by the Irish Censorship Board for its sexually explicit language—essentially, the use of a few four-letter words—and as a result he was dismissed from his job as a teacher in a Dublin school. For the next decade or so he lived and worked abroad, returning in the 1970s to Ireland, where he now lives on a small farm in County Leitrim, in the northern part of the Republic near where he was born, one of the poorest and most mournfully beautiful parts of the country.

It is this muted little corner of the world that provides the setting for McGahern’s most convincing fictions; the best of his novels and the best of his stories are set there, on the fringes of Gloria Bog, with the Iron Mountains in the distance and the River Shannon flowing past on its long journey south. He writes of the lives of small farmers, agricultural technicians (there is in this volume a wonderful, grotesquely funny story about a drunken group of artificial inseminators attending a formal dance), country schoolteachers, priests. Yet McGahern is not a fond pastoral writer casting a sentimental eye over a nest of simple folk; his is a dark, relentless vision: he is far closer to Samuel Beckett and James Joyce than to Frank O’Connor or Sean O’Faolain. Here is the embittered spurned lover of “Parachutes”:

I came to a quiet side street where I sat on the steps of one of the houses. There were five steps up to each house. The stone was granite. Many of the iron railings were painted blue. Across the street was a dishevelled lilac bush. They’d taught us to notice such things when young. They said it was the …

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