How strange it is to read about a religious war in an English-speaking country in our time. Yet that's essentially what Bernard MacLaverty's "Cal" is about—the undeclared war between Irish Catholics and Protestants in Ulster.
It seems almost surrealistic to hear a Protestant in "Cal" talk of being "ruled from Rome," or living "under the yoke of Roman Catholicism." We wonder how much of this fear is real and how much imaginary. If it weren't so bloody, we might be glad to see people quarreling about spiritual matters for a change, actually arguing about the fate of the soul….
Cal himself is a rather empty young man, not yet beyond redemption, but poised between good and evil….
In spite of his idleness and lack of resolve, Cal is appealing in the way that simple humanity, eloquently caught, always is. When he goes to church, the source of so much trouble, Cal feels the sermon as "a time of comfort, of hearing but not listening." When he and his father are threatened by the hooligans who will eventually burn down their house, they fill the bathtub as a precaution against the flames. Don't put the blankets in this time, the father says. They're too hard to dry. The everyday matter-of-factness of their attitude—the bathtub, the blankets—makes us realize how domesticated violence has become in our time….
Because this is a nonpartisan novel, Mr. MacLaverty has captured the pathos and the madness of both sides. One of his best images is of a cow that is blown up "by mistake." The innocence of the cow is everybody's innocence, and the guilt for the killing is everybody's too. When Cal drives the assassin's car, the ridges of the steering wheel remind him of the ridges in the roof of his mouth. When he goes to work for the murdered man's mother and is given the man's leftover clothes to wear, Cal is finally all dressed up in his confusion.
Though "Cal" is a bleak novel, there is a flicker of lyricism running through it, like the sun shining through the shattered windows of a ruined church. At one point, Cal reflects that Protestants are called "staunch," while Catholics are "fervent." Mr. MacLaverty's novel is both, and something more.
Anatole Broyard, "Domesticated Violence," in The New York Times, August 20, 1983, p. 12.