Secrets, and Other Stories
With the American publication in 1983 of Cal, a novel depicting the complexities of the Protestant-Catholic-British conflict in Northern Ireland, Bernard MacLaverty became the best-known Ulster writer on this side of the Atlantic. Following Cal, Lamb (1980), his first novel, and A Time to Dance and Other Stories (1982) is Secrets, and Other Stories, a collection of fifteen stories published in Ireland and Great Britain in the 1970’s. The stories avoid the political context of Cal, with only an occasional reference to British soldiers. Written in a simple, straightforward style, these stories examine the everyday lives of working-class people whose joys and sorrows are so universal they could be living almost anywhere. That they are citizens of Northern Ireland makes their situations seem even more desperate, the frequent humor of these situations unexpected and all the more effective.
At their best, MacLaverty’s stories resemble those of James Joyce and Frank O’Connor, his obvious models. The stories, however, are uneven, too often merely sketches, clearly the work of a writer still learning his craft. Some are pleasant but insubstantial. In “A Pornographer Woos,” the opening of which recalls Leopold Bloom spying on Gerty MacDowell in James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), a writer, inspired while watching his wife on a beach, creates a mildly pornographic sketch; she reads it, and they return to their hotel room to make love. In “The Miraculous Candidate,” a schoolboy prays for help during an exam, levitates, and receives divine assistance. MacLaverty has a talent for whimsey, but the best stories in this collection deal with the more commonplace.
Dick, the protagonist of “The Bull with the Hard Hat,” has eight noisy children and a ninth on its way. Unfortunately, he is more successful at impregnating his wife than at his job: the artificial insemination of heifers. He can get no peace at home and none at work since increasingly (despite ten years’ experience) he fails to impregnate the cows and knows that he is to blame. Even if he were good at his job, he would find it an ordeal: “The long rubber glove, the cow’s hot insides, the constant prevailing smell of dung, the muck and clabber yards he had to tramp through. It was either that or home, he didn’t know which was worse.” Dick finds happiness only in his fantasies. Driving from job to job, he imagines he is Grand Prix champion Emmerson Fittipaldi. Pulled over to the side of a road to eat the bland lunch his wife has prepared, he imagines having sex with Carmel, one of the women in his office. Carmel represents not only the prospect of sex but also something even less likely—an ordered life: “With Carmel it would have been so different. They could have had two nice children and she would be there crisp and clean for him when he came home, the house immaculate, the toys tidied away.” In his pathetic retreat from the chaos of his life, Dick is typical of MacLaverty’s characters.
The nameless protagonist of “Between Two Shores” has a happy home life threatened by the fulfillment of his sexual fantasies. He thinks about the mess he has made of things while on a boat returning to Belfast from England where he has gone to work for a time. Hospitalized to have his appendix removed, he falls in love with a nurse. He is sexually attracted to her but also needs company in this alien land. He acquires a venereal disease from her and spends his passage home both worrying about what to do about it, afraid to tell his faithful wife, and trying to forget about it by approaching a pretty student. Unable to resolve his problem, he tries to wish it away. MacLaverty does not seem to be implying anything about England infecting Ulster but is simply presenting a man’s inability to deal with loneliness, guilt, and despair.
“Anodyne” is a lighter, more ironic look at loneliness. James Delargy, a teacher, has been devoted to his invalid mother. After she dies, a doctor...
(The entire section is 1,279 words.)