Bernard Mac Laverty Deirdre Donahue - Essay

Deirdre Donahue

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In his second book of short stories, A Time to Dance, Bernard Mac Laverty recalls the fears of childhood and imagines the indignities of old age. This Ulster-born writer, now living on the Isle of Islay, explores the world of the very young and the very old, the innocent and the helpless. His best stories map out a frightening terrain where the inhabitants smash up against reality.

The collection's best story, "The Beginnings of a Sin," traces the disenchantment of a fatherless Irish altar boy named Colum. Called a "creeping Jesus" by his older brothers, the child has the ardor of a very young and very earnest soul. He idolizes an old priest, failing to see, as every villager knows, that the man is a sot….

[The] theme of knowledge blasting innocence runs throughout Mac Laverty's work. His first novel, Lamb, chronicles the warping of a pure love between a Dublin slum child and a teaching brother. The motif reappears in "A Time to Dance," the title story of the collection.

Set in a Scottish strip joint, the tale recounts a fateful noon. We wait with a small boy locked up in a broom closet. Outside his mother peels off her pasties to the accompaniment of a hooting crowd quaffing its liquid lunch. The boy gleans his mother's true occupation by peering over a crate onto the strobelit runway. He realizes he will never again see her in the same way….

Mac Laverty's compassion extends to the aged as well. In "No Joke," we encounter an old man as he arises on his 83rd birthday. Watching the dawn, he tries to recall some snippet of Baudelaire's poetry he once committed to memory. The retired headmaster of a parochial school, Frank Stringer valiantly attempts to stave off mortality.

Like most short story collections, A Time to Dance offers a mixed grill. Mac Laverty is best when he writes of masculine youth or old age. The three stories told from a feminine viewpoint lack a clear tone. The reader does not experience a twinge of recognition.

The best stories, "A Time to Dance," "The Beginning of a Sin," and "No Joke," though, erase the memory of a few false notes.

Deirdre Donahue, "Innocence and Experience," in Book World—The Washington Post, October 3, 1982, p. 9.