Nothing Happens in Carmincross, by Benedict Kiely. Boston: David R. Godine. 280 pp. $16.95. Benedict Kiely is probably one of Ireland's best-kept secrets. His short stories appeared regularly in The New Yorker in the 1970s, and his most recent collection, ``The State of Ireland,'' was highly acclaimed upon its United States publication in 1980, yet Kiely's name is not that well known among the general reading public here -- a number of whom tend to list Leon Uris, author of ``Trinity,'' as their favorite Irish writer!
The situation is otherwise in Ireland, where Kiely is widely regarded as the finest writer of prose on the island. ``Nothing Happens in Carmincross,'' his new novel -- and a tour de force of language, love, and sorrow -- is likely to only further enhance that standing.
On one level (sometimes said of novels as if they were houses or hotels) the story is straightforward: that of a 50-ish Irish history professor, Mervyn Kavanagh, who flies home from his teaching post in Dixie to the wedding of his favorite niece in the small Ulster town of Carmincross. Joining forces with Deborah, an old flame who is still more embers than ashes, Kavanagh makes his way north from Shannon Airport in County Clare. There are others in the cast: Mr. Burns, a hotel manager and childhood frie nd of Kavanagh, an unnamed aging hero of the original Irish Republican Army, a cynical Dublin civil servant, and another childhood acquaintance who is an Ulster policeman, but none of them are as fully realized as Kavanagh, who practically carries the novel single-handedly.
Robert Lowell, I believe, suggested that memory lies at the heart of any novel. Certainly memory is what advances this story, even as it casts us back into an earlier, and sometimes legendary, Ireland. Using a stream-of-consciousness technique that is often more of a flood, Kiely has Kavanagh recalling a wealth of Irish myths, history, and ballads, which inform the incidents that befall the pair on their way to the wedding. There is no dialogue in this novel, only talk -- the mad, antic, allusional, gif ted gab of the Irish. In short, the writing sings.
The title, of course, is ironic. Something horrific indeed happens in Carmincross, when Kavanagh and Deborah finally arrive. Things are changed utterly, only no terrible beauty (as Yeats had it) is born. Yet the nightmare of Irish history (as Joyce had it) has already been with the reader since the opening pages -- if only because Kiely has made that nightmare of terrorism and violence Kavanagh's own.
At times the nightmare is literal, with the details of the latest bombing or shooting disturbing Kavanagh's troubled sleep. Elsewhere in the novel, the radio or the papers do the job in a ``news flash'' fashion that evokes Dos Passos at his best. Irish mythology contributes, too, prompting Kavanagh, ``tormented by the horrors of everyday happenings,'' to observe that ``all our legends end in blood and death.''
``To a man of literature politics is poison,'' Turgenev once wrote. It might be argued that politics is none too safe for the Irish -- Roman Catholic or Protestant -- in Northern Ireland, except that it is too facile an irony, and easy ironies and politics are not the stuff of this powerful and disturbing novel. There is no cant here, no dialectic, rather a catalog of atrocities and a litany of horrors perpetrated by all sides in what is too genteelly termed ``the troubles.'' ``The object of terrorism i s to terrorize,'' avows Kiely. ``Kill or maim the people so as to make them free. . . . Meditate on the facts. Do not distort.''
Patrick Kavanagh, the Irish poet, held that a writer need never worry about being too parochial, since the parish is a more legitimate and universal subject than the larger province or state. ``Every corner is a world,'' agrees Kiely, whose fictional corner of Carmincross serves nicely as a microcosm for our wider world, which is rife with terrorism in 1985. ``The horrors of everyday happenings'' which impinge upon Mervyn Kavanagh include the latest atrocities from Iran or Afghanistan, which are a lso duly reported in Ireland. All of which suggests that Benedict Kiely has his eye on something more like the human condition, than just the Irish condition. As such, ``Nothing Happens in Carmincross'' is, sadly, very much a novel for our times. When Kavanagh flies back to America at the novel's end, he muses on the number of nuclear-armed submarines beneath the Atlantic below. Surely, ``the troubles'' are small potatoes compared with what we, as a species, currently have on our plates.