- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 21, 2002

BY THE LAKE
By John McGahern
Knopf, $24, 336 pages
REVIEWED BY KEVIN DRISCOLL

"The morning was clear. There was no wind on the lake. There was also a great stillness. When the bells rang out for mass, the strokes trembling on the water, they had the entire world to themselves."
So begins John McGahern's latest novel, "By the Lake."At first glance, the short, simple opening paragraph appears to be nothing more than just that: a string of three brief declaratory sentences followed by a slightly longer one. But, much like the novel itself and the beautifully realized locale that is its subject this opening paragraph rewards close attention. For these four sentences subtly reveal a narrator intimately aware of his environs and their inhabitants.
How else to explain the need to reinforce the second sentence of the opening paragraph with the third? Most would assume that the absence of wind necessarily implies "stillness" but not here. One possible explanation for the apparent redundancy is belied by the sheer economy of these opening sentences. No, this narrator knows that the absence of wind does not necessarily lead to "a great stillness." We are left, momentarily, to wonder why.
And the last sentence of the opening graph: "they" that is, the church bells "had the world all to themselves," ringing out into a slumbering parish, leaving behind reverberations to disturb ever so slightly the still waters of the lake. But note how, with the insertion of the clause describing the echoes of the bells, this last sentence takes on just enough of a whiff of ambiguity to make us wonder who "they" really are. What is this "entire world" and who is it that has it all to themselves?
Admittedly, the ambiguity and depth in the opening paragraph owe their existence to all that follows and can be appreciated fully only after readers have traveled the world to which this narrator introduces us. (Lest anyone think the reviewer is reading too much into this opening paragraph, the very same paragraph reappears at a critical moment later in the novel where it serves as a reminder to the reader not only that the narrator is still with us, but also that the stillness of the world we observe is prone to disturbances more jarring than the bells summoning worshippers to morning mass.)
We are, therefore, in the presence of a guide who tips his hand shows us his intimate knowledge of the world we are peering into right from the beginning, when we, as readers, have yet to see or hear anything more than those gentle vibrations on the still waters of the lake.
The opening paragraph opens into a domestic scene that introduces the two central characters of the novel, Kate and Joe Ruttledge. They improbably met and fell in love while working at a fashionable London advertising agency for which they still do the occasional work on the side. But they have returned to their native Ireland to get back to basics: They raise livestock and own 20 acres of land."Strange to think," someone remarks later in the novel, "of all the people that went out to England and America and the ends of the earth and yon pair coming back against the tide."
Despite their anomalous return, the Ruttledges have become members of the small, and therefore necessarily intimate, community of farmers, laborers, and gossippers who live "by the lake."
This necessary intimacy and the fruitless attempt to wall it out is a constant theme in the novel, and it is underscored from the beginning. For, waiting in the wings in the opening scene and throughout the book is the Ruttledges' friend and neighbor, Jamesie, who "entered without knocking and came in noiselessly." Jamesie on the lookout for the "news" that is his stock-in-trade is disappointed "when the Ruttledges continued to converse calmly about a visit they were expecting."This disappointment prompts the narrator to remark: "Such was his continual expectation of discovery that in his eavesdropping he was nearly always disappointed by the innocence he came upon."
The narrator's description of Jamesie's disappointment is revealing.It tells us much about the man and his community, but it also serves the more fundamental purpose of placing us, the readers, in a similar position. We, like Jamesie, are "entering without knocking" and "coming in noiselessly" to observe. And take note of the "nearly" in the above description, for like Jamesie, we won't always find innocence among the community of souls living by the lake.
In the end, what do we observe? A community or perhaps, to be more precise, the individuals who are comprised in that community. It is they, and not the false propulsion of plot twists, who drive this novel. The result is a book that, while very difficult to review how can one fully convey the richness of its characters without giving them all away? nevertheless is a true joy to read.
Take this description of Jamesie's wife, Mary. Having moved away from her family home when she married Jamesie, she brought along her father, who had a practice of going to town every Thursday in a pony-drawn trap only to return "warmed by several glasses of fine, aged Irish whiskey, and asleep":
"On Thursdays, no matter what the weather, she could not resist going out to the brow of the hill with the two dogs about the time the pony was due to turn in round the shore. She would breathe with relief as soon as the trap appeared and the pony started to gallop… . When Jamesie teased her about going out to the brow of the hill, she went silent: She was beginning to understand that to be without anxiety was to be without love and that it could not be shared. She was content that her first and older love, who had never spoken a harsh word to her in all the days of her girlhood, was safely home and sleeping off this Thursday in the big bed with the broken brass bells."
The excerpt, admittedly, is long for such a short review but who can gainsay that it represents, all by itself, a novel-in-miniature? From the dignified but declining father, whose habits recall the regular daily walk of the great philosopher Immanuel Kant interrupted on only two occasions: on the day he received word of the French Revolution and the day he died to the pony that knows the way home, to the dutiful and loving daughter awaiting return, to the jibing husband who misses the purpose of the weekly ritual. The elements are all there within a novel already fully formed in its particulars.
And there is more where that came from: The novel is an entire world of fully realized characters just as was hinted at in the opening paragraph.
Having come through this tableau the word is not precise, but there's none other that will do the reader is left with a series of vivid impressions comprised in a novel that strikes the reader as at once evanescent and durable.Perhaps the sense is better encapsulated by the words of one of the characters the novel allows us to look in on:
"As he listened to … the voices he was so attached to and thought back to the afternoon, the striking of the clocks, the easy, pleasant company, the walk around the shore, with a rush of feeling he felt that this must be happiness. As soon as the thought came to him, he fought it back, blaming the whiskey. The very idea was as dangerous as presumptive speech: happiness could not be sought or worried into being, or even fully grasped; it should be allowed its own slow pace so that it passes unnoticed, if it ever comes at all."
It does come. And this novel is proof that it does.

Kevin Driscoll is a writer living in Northern California

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