(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

John McGahern’s writing career was plagued by controversy due to his challenging many of Ireland’s past religious, social, and sexual values. Although such abstract social issues are not at the center of his stories, there are no sentimental images of Ireland in them either; many are darkly pessimistic. Nor is there a garrulous, Irish storyteller voice, for his stories are concise, controlled, and clipped—much more characteristic of Chekhovian writing than a folklorish oral style. It is not the speaking voice of Frank O’Connor that dominates these stories but the stylized tone of so-called modern minimalism.

Because of the self-conscious control of McGahern’s narrative technique, his short stories have received as much critical analysis as those of Mary Lavin and Edna O’Brien. These writers are both realistic and lyrical at once, as is typical of the modern Joycean tradition, pushing mere description of the material world to unobtrusive symbolic significance. McGahern was also typical of that tradition; although his stories have a recognizable social context, he was not interested in confronting his characters with the abstractions of social limitations. More often in his short stories, his characters face the universal challenges of responsibility, guilt, commitment, and death.


“Korea” is a deceptively simple story with a seemingly misleading title. Although the story is quite brief, it contains within it another story, which a father tell, about being captured just after the revolution in 1919, when the British were shooting prisoners. The father describes a young man of sixteen or seventeen who, after being shot, plucked at the tunic over his heart as if to tear out the bullets, his buttons flying into the air. The father says that years later, while he was on his honeymoon, he saw bursting furze pods, which reminded him of the young man’s buttons.

After the father urges his son to go to America, the boy overhears him excitedly telling a man that American soldiers’ lives are insured for $10,000 and that, for the duration of a soldier’s service, his parents receive $250 a month. Later when the boy tells his father he has decided he will not go to America, the father says it will be his own funeral if he refuses this chance and comes to nothing in “this fool of a country.” Although this seems to be a story about a calculating father willing to sacrifice his own son for money, the boy does not see it that way, feeling closer to the father than ever before.


Both in terms of the clipped, repetitive syntax and the basic situation of a couple living in Spain, “Peaches” is McGahern’s most Hemingwayesque story. It begins with a prevailing metaphor, also reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway, of a dead shark that lies stinking on the beach beneath a couple’s house. The couple, referred to simply as “the man” and “the woman,” have come to Spain, where they can live cheaply and where he can write and she can paint; however, the two do little more than quarrel, have sex, and talk about why they are unhappy, much as Hemingway’s couples do.

The title metaphor of peaches brings the couple’s lethargic and unproductive lifestyle to a head when the magistrate of the area invites them to his house to try his peaches, making it clear that it is the woman in whom he is interested by stuffing peaches into the breast pockets of her dress. When he urges them to come again so they can swim naked in his pool, the...

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