The Trick of the Ga Bolga

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Patrick McGinley, an Irishman residing in England, published his first novel, Bogmail, in 1978; the American edition was issued in 1981. More novels followed in quick succession: The Trick of the Ga Bolga is his fifth (although it was the fourth in sequence to be published in the United States—thus the misleading information provided by the American edition). McGinley’s novels have generally been classified as mysteries or crime novels—designations that are at once accurate and misleading, for he uses genre conventions in a subversive way.

In this latest work, murder provides a context for the protagonist’s existential disposition. It strengthens his unenviable perception that everything in the world is itself and, more than likely, another thing. Murder occurs as a banality. As such, it seems a contradiction in terms, or at least a serious reversal of reader expectation. Yet by virtue of such contradictoriness, it provides a means for McGinley’s larger and more problematic concerns—with nature, love, the psychology of perception, and death—to play their part in the rich and slightly unnerving matrix of his fiction.

At first sight, the protagonist of The Trick of the Ga Bolga, Rufus George Coote, seems himself a contradiction in terms, or at least a misfit. He is an engineer attempting to farm. He is a man of metropolitan tastes and background living in a rural community. He is an Englishman waiting out World War II in the remote northwest of Ireland—and not as a matter of conscience but rather of expediency. The twofold nature of his status and circumstances is not entirely hidden from Coote, but he lacks the means, and to a large degree the desire, to articulate a sense of them. Overshadowing the glimpses of doubleness which he receives are the demands and pleasures of mundane existence. To judge by appearances, he fits in very well with his neighbors in Garaross. At least his neighbors think so. From the moment of his arrival, he is treated as one of them, and he undergoes no trying period of adjustment. Surrounded by mountains and the sea, Coote believes that he is being offered the possibility of “peace, placidity and the sanity of the ordinary.” Or, as a neighbor puts it: “You can get away with murder here.”

Coote states that his ambition is to “live off nine acres of rocky land like everyone else.” Nevertheless, he is an active participant in the community, sharing its work rhythms and economic rituals. He even becomes joint supervisor, with the local priest, in an abortive effort to build a bridge, an episode which may or may not have symbolic relevance to a general understanding of Coote’s experiences. His participation allows the author to indulge one of his favorite artistic habits—namely, to provide lore. In this case, since he is writing about his native region, the lore of farming, fishing, and folkways is prominent. The second of these three is featured with particular vividness and obvious relish. In addition, local idioms in both English and Irish lend color and distinctiveness to the proceedings, giving the novel texture and averting attractively the danger of a merely schematic, intellectual piece of work.

Perhaps Coote fits in too well. When obliged to defend himself against The Proker, one of his neighbors, who makes unexpectedly unseemly advances toward him, the result is The Proker’s death. It takes a long time, however, for Coote to make an appropriate moral response to the murder. (Morally speaking, The Proker’s death is murder. Legally, a lesser charge might be entertained, on the grounds of self-defense.) He sees another neighbor, Salmo (The Proker’s sworn enemy), arrested for the crime and jailed pending probable conviction and execution. He solicitously visits Salmo in prison. Only gradually, and because of the innocent and humane concerns of Consolata, one of his girlfriends, is Coote prompted to help Salmo. Even then, his objective is to free the prisoner, not incriminate himself. He fails, however. During the course of his imprisonment, Salmo has developed a fatalistic acceptance of his misfortune which is, ironically, made of much sterner stuff than Coote’s amorality. As if to compound the irony, when Coote eventually goes to confess the crime to the plodding local constable, he is told that he is much too decent a person to have done such a deed.

The other, more...

(The entire section is 1806 words.)


(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Booklist. Review. LXXXI (March 1, 1985), p. 928.

Burgess, Edwin B. Review in New Statesman. CX (August 30, 1985), p. 26.

Kenner, Hugh. Review in The New York Times Book Review. XC (July 21, 1985), p. 20.

Kenner, Hugh. Review in The Observer. September 1, 1985, p. 18.

Kirkus Reviews. Review. LIII (February 1, 1985), p. 105.

Profumo, David. Review in The Times Literary Supplement. September 13, 1985, p. 1000.

Profumo, David. Review in The Washington Post Book World. XV (May 5, 1985), p.10.