(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Benedict Kiely’s approach to short fiction is typically discursive, episodic, and anecdotal, because of the nature of his material as well as his artistic apprehension of it. Kiely’s material is drawn less from his own imagination than from the things people say, write, or sing. His artistic rendering of the material comes from his well-developed sense of oral tradition. This sense is alert not only to the delight of utterance but also to the ways in which utterance stimulates memory and how stories, like shadow plays, illustrate the trials of loss and love that characterize the human journey.

The outcome of these orientations is a body of short fiction that speaks to the rich verbal integument of Irish culture. The adaptation of oral tradition to the context of a society’s growing pains is one of Kiely’s most significant contributions to modern Irish writing. In addition, his fiction identifies strata of myth in the adventures and careers of its protagonists. This mythic dimension concerns journeying, unearthing, restoring, and the rituals of arrival and departure. Kiely’s sense of landscape wistfully evinces this dimension. The presence of an archetypal undertow is another means by which Kiely’s work reinvigorates certain important strains of Irish literary culture. The flexible and informal conservatism of Kiely’s artistic strategies constitutes a distinctive accomplishment in what has been a time of rapid and unnerving change in Irish culture and society.

His Northern Ireland background, his attachment to both Ireland and Northern Ireland, his reminiscences about Ireland, his love of poetry, his humor and irony—all can be found in his favorite stories, including “A Cow in the House,” “A Ball of Malt and Madame Butterfly,” “Down Then by Derry,” “A Journey to the Seven Streams,” “Bluebell Meadow,” and “Maiden’s Leap.” All of these stories were written between 1960 and 1975; the last three were first published in The New Yorker.

“A Cow in the House”

“A Cow in the House” relates a childhood experience of Kiely on his first trip from Omagh to Dublin when the journey was prepared for by an amateurish and embarrassing haircut by a local barber who, for further humiliation, kept a cow in his house. From such adverse beginnings, the child must also clack through Dublin with a loose heel; and his self-consciousness causes him to make another mistake when he sings a bawdy song for a group of nuns. The day’s series of disasters turns only when he visits a hall of mirrors, where he becomes conscious of the imperfections of other people; all have “big noses, red faces, legs too long or short, behinds that waggled, clothes that didn’t fit. Every one of them had a cow in the house.”

“A Journey to the Seven Streams”

Perhaps Kiely’s penchant for travelogues derives from his father, who had traveled to South Africa to fight in the Boer War. Kiely reminisces about him in “A Journey to the Seven Streams,” in which the father conducts the family among Northern Ireland towns in the vicinity of Omagh and recites history as he points out important features of the landscape. A rickety car, in the days when cars were few, and the family’s wry comments on it provide much of the humor of this story. To the owner the car is “human,” but it stops and refuses to start without being pushed uphill; it frightens livestock and attracts congregations. Returning to Omagh, the family decides that decorum demands they alight from the car at the town’s entrance and walk the rest of the way home.

“A Ball of Malt and Madame Butterfly”

At the opposite extreme from youthful remembrance is “A Ball of Malt and Madame Butterfly.” To write about his queen of the streets, Kiely chooses the ancient and beautiful symbol of female erotica, the butterfly, and surrounds his Madame Butterfly with attitudes of humor and endearment. This Butterfly owes little to her counterpart in the opera by Giacomo Puccini except a slightly Japanese appearance; her basic occupation, to Guy de Maupassant’s story “Ball of Suet.” The place she frequents in Dublin is a pub called the Dark Cow, and “What she is her mother was before her, and proud of it.”

The story begins with just a touch of prejudice against prostitutes, unpopular though such sentiment is among Butterfly’s loyal followers, the men of the fire brigade. A ladder raised to a smoking upstairs window focuses attention on a partly dressed male who shoves a woman back into the room so that he can escape first. Indignation turns to laughter when Butterfly emerges, and the firemen subsequently make certain that the ungallant man’s wife and hometown hear about his deeds.

Images of flight now focus on birds, which, like cows, are favored in Irish mythology but, unlike cows, have the further advantage of romantic enhancement by the poet William Butler Yeats and all his entourage of poetry enthusiasts, one of whom is a lonely, shy, forty-year-old Dublin bachelor named Pike Hunter. Painfully self-conscious, he passes through Stephen’s Green, where women on park benches seem as “gracefully at rest as the swans on the lake.” Then Pike sees the poet himself and observes a touching meeting of Yeats and Maud Gonne in their old age and all their majesty; the sight of Maud Gonne recalls for Pike the poem “When You Are Old” and that “one man loved the pilgrim soul in you, and loved the sorrows of your changing face.” His knowledge of a former meeting on Howth Head and the poems “His Phoenix” and “The White Birds” furthers his romantic inclinations, for next he walks into the Dark Cow, frequented by dockers, and into the acquaintance of Butterfly. She will become his personal “phoenix” as in Yeats’s poem, the means for him of his transformation and his pilgrimage. The lines “I would that we were, my beloved, white birds on the foam of the sea” will lead later to Butterfly’s flight away from Pike. Although Pike knows other poets as well, it is Ireland’s greatest that causes his downfall.

Drunk on poetry, views, and visions, Pike buys champagne for Butterfly and meets her fireman friend, Austin, who knew Butterfly’s dance-hall mother and who always orders “A ball of malt” and adds “and Madame Butterfly” as a joke. Pike becomes acquainted with Jody, the pub owner, and with Butterfly’s “stable of girls,” all of whom have never before seen the like of Pike Hunter. His lovemaking reminds Butterfly of a Christian Brother: He soon has her “puked” with his continual recitations of poetry, and he loves her with a singularity of devotion that interferes with her normal trade. Nor does she appreciate his efforts to transform the relationship from a mercenary one by failing to pay her for every performance. Meanwhile, Butterfly invests Jody’s five-pound note at the races and then buys with the profits a musquash coat of such elegance that she wears it for everything, including a trip to Howth Head to walk around the mountain as the poet had done with Maud Gonne. She could have tolerated the rough walk in high-heeled shoes (topped with a broken heel), the hot sun running sweat under her fur coat, the delays for mending the heel, and the resultant shivers when the sun sank but that the shy Pike should—under the inspiration of poetry—turn into a violent rapist and attempt to flatten her on Howth proves too much indignity for Butterfly, who prefers the privacy of a rumpled bed. The resultant quarrelsome fault-finding ends the relationship.

Thereafter, Pike returns drunk, only once, to the Dark Cow, where efforts to cheer him up fail and evoke from him only a comment, “Boys, Beethoven when he was dying, said: Clap now, good friends, the comedy is done.” His aunts, who had presided over his extended virginity, soon find...

(The entire section is 3227 words.)