July 2002


BY THE LAKE by John McGahern, Alfred A Knopf, New York, 2002 

I have often thought in recent years that it has become harder and harder for a writer to please me. If, one, a book doesn't have an interesting plot, and if, two, it isn't well written, I will not finish it. But now John McGahern has made me rethink my standards, for by using the second of these criteria alone, he has tugged me through to the end of By the Lake

The morning was clear, There was no wind on the lake. There was also a great stillness. When the bells rang out for Mass, the strokes trembling on the water, they had the entire world to themselves.

So begins, in midsummer, this all but plotless novel, recounting the daily lives of a few rural neighbors who live on the shore of a lake in Ireland. The central characters are Ruttledge, a gentleman farmer, and his wife Kate, relative newcomers to the neighborhood, who have come in semi-retirement from London. Their closest friends are Jamesie, an impetuous, gossipy farmer, and his wife Mary, who continually scolds him good-naturedly. Among others who turn up from time to time are James' difficult brother John Quinn, a womanizing, hard drinking fellow who comes home on an extended vacation every summer from England; Ruttledge's wealthy uncle, nicknamed the Shah, the owner of a junkyard in the nearby town; and Bill Evans, a retarded, misshapen hired man on a neighboring farm, who stops in at the Ruttledge's occasionally demanding cigarettes and whiskey. We follow these people through the harvest, through, market day, through a slaughtering plant, through the lambing season, through a wedding and a funeral, until we come to the next summer, where the book stops.

Having made eight visits to Ireland over the past twenty years, I feel confident in saying that there is no author quite like john McGahern for evoking the people and landscapes of the West of Ireland. And in this, the latest of his five novels, he seems content to do little more than that. Which is all right with me, because the dailiness of his characters' lives is portrayed in such lovely prose. Here is spring coming on: 

The fields long sodden with rain hardened in the drying wind. Small flowers started to appear on banks and ditches and in the shelter of the hedges. . . . Birds bearing twigs in their beaks looped through the air. In the shallows along the shore the water rippled with the life of spawing pike and bream; in the turmoil their dark fins showed above the water and their white bellies flashed when they rolled. The lambs were now out with their mothers on the grass, hopping as if they had mechanical springs in their tiny hooves

 The only fault I find with the book--and it's a small one--is the curious, and sometimes confusing, similarity of names. Besides he aforementioned Jamesie, there is his son Jim, as well as Jimmy Joe McKiernan, a bar owner, and Jimmy Lynch, the church sacristan . And in preparation for the funeral of John Quinn, one of the gravediggers is a townsman whose name is John Quinn. Either the author could have used a more alert editor or the people of this locale show a remarkable lack of imagination in naming their children.



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Last modified: July 08, 2002