Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 792
Having grown up in a small, provincial town in Ireland, the narrator, Ted Magner, states that he has been best friends with Terry Coughlan since they were children. Terry has always been well-spoken and likes classical music and languages. “Whatever he took up, he mastered,” says Magner of his friend. Magner remembers the friendly arguments that they had when they were young. “Maybe you don’t remember the sort of arguments you had when you were young,” the narrator fondly tells his readers, knowing that they do. The argument that he recalls, however, is the one he had with Terry about writers. Magner lists Guy de Maupassant as one of the greatest writers. Terry disagrees, however, saying that there is nothing “noble” about Maupassant’s stories; rather, they are slick, coarse, and commonplace.
As they reach young manhood, the two friends drift away from close contact with each other, but Magner continues to be fond of Terry. Terry takes a job teaching in the monks’ school, and Magner gets a job elsewhere, beginning to associate with a different crowd, people such as Donnelan, of whom Terry does not approve. Magner tells the reader that Terry slowly grows disillusioned by the behavior of the monks at the school and is discouraged by a form of cheating that the monks condone, allowing one boy to take a state examination using another boy’s name. Magner later learns from Donnelan that Terry has begun to drink. His first reaction is, “A sparrow would have about the same consumption of liquor.” Magner sees Terry drunk about six months later, however, and realizes that Terry drinks constantly, keeping his drinking a secret from his family and from his sister, Tess. Magner understands why Terry is so secretive: “You might almost say he was drinking unknown to himself. Other people could be drunkards but not he.” He wonders whether he should confront Terry about his drinking but realizes that he cannot because “you couldn’t talk like that to a man of his kind.” He also comments that Terry is drinking himself to death.
When Terry is forty years old, his mother dies. That same year he visits Paris in the summer for the first time. At first, Magner hopes that Terry will begin to straighten out, but later he realizes that “it was worse he was getting.”
Finally, Magner is surprised one day several years later to be visited by Pa Hourigan, a local police officer, who asks Magner to speak to Terry about his disreputable life. Magner, who thinks Hourigan is referring to Terry’s drunkenness, is amazed to learn that Hourigan is concerned about Terry’s consorting with prostitutes: “low, loose, abandoned women,” says Hourigan. The police officer, who is worried about Terry’s soul, asks Magner to intervene, saying, “Do what you can for his soul, Mr. Magner. As for his body, I wouldn’t like to answer.” Magner comments about Terry in Latin, “Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.”
Magner goes to Terry’s house to confront him, speaking for a while with Terry and Tess. It reminds him of their old days together, until Tess leaves them alone. After a short time, Magner stands up to leave, realizing that he cannot discuss this situation with Terry: “There was something there you couldn’t do violence to,” Magner reasons. As he is leaving, Magner looks at Terry’s bookcase, commenting, “I see you have a lot of Maupassant at last.”
Somehow this remark cuts through the silence and reserve between the childhood friends, and Terry begins speaking honestly of his consorting with prostitutes and his drunkenness. He reveals that when he was first in Paris he took a prostitute to her room and discovered that she had her baby with her. After their transaction, the woman fell asleep; Terry remarks, “It’s many years now since I’ve been able to sleep like that.” This remark captures very well the kind of life in which Terry finds himself a prisoner. He continues to talk of the incident with this prostitute—one of many since then—because he remembers that after she awoke, they had a conversation about Maupassant. This conversation reminded Terry of his schoolboy arguments with Magner. Terry says that “it’s only when you see what life can do to you” that one can appreciate Maupassant’s stories.
Terry reads Magner’s thoughts that this was indeed a strange conversation for a French prostitute and “a drunken waster” from the Irish countryside. Magner says sadly, “A man like you should have a wife and children.” However, clearly this is not to be, and Magner ends the story with the observation, “And life was pretty nearly through with Terry Coughlan.”
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