He finds it ironic now. He grew up in Washington, D.C., in the 1950s, in what he calls one of the most ``pluralistic'' of environments. Yet novelist James Carroll came away with an acute sense of his ethnic heritage, so acute that as an adult and as a writer he claims he is forever ``coming to grips with my Irishness.'' The former Roman Catholic priest is a passionate man. ``I'm not cool,'' he admits. It is evident in his personal history: He was an antiwar activist while a chaplain at Boston University in the '60s and '70s. It is evident in the edge and emotion in his voice as he sits in the living room of his home on Boston's Beacon Hill, lamenting the bloody past and decrying the bloody present of Ireland's relations with Britain. It is particularly evident in his writing; a reviewer once said of him - not unkindly - that ``he is so intense he makes your teeth ache.''
Carroll has a knack for letting the reader feel the human effect of history: be it the last days of the Irish rebellion in ``Mortal Friends''; the CIA-KGB give-and-take in ``Family Trade''; the antiwar activism in ``Fault Lines'' and ``Prince of Peace''; or the concurrent dramas of World War I and Dublin's 1916 Easter Rising in ``Supply of Heroes'' (New York: Dutton. $17.95), his sixth novel and what early reviews have judged his finest.
Carroll grew up never questioning the righteousness of the Easter Rising and the subsequent revolution that won Irish independence from Britain in 1921. His mother's uncle, James Morrissey, killed in 1917 - presumably a martyr of the rebellion - became something of a family legend. In 1970, during a trip to Ireland, Carroll sought out his great-uncle's grave in the tiny village of Four Mile in County Tipperary. What he found marked a watershed in his coming to grips with his Irishness and led to ``Supply of Heroes.''
``His grave was marked with the regimental tombstone of a British soldier,'' says Carroll. ``He was a Tommy. He died in France.''
So Carroll began to question some of what he calls ``unquestioned truths.'' Five hundred thousand Irishmen like James Morrissey fought for England during the Great War. Fifty thousand gave their lives. Thus the first ``unquestioned truth'' to come under Carroll's scrutiny was his ingrained Irish conviction that England is the natural and eternal enemy of Ireland.
``I imagine my uncle as a man who was not sure who his enemy was,'' says Carroll. ``In this century, that lack of certitude qualifies as a virtue.''
His latest novel plumbs the irony and complexity of Irishmen fighting for Britain and the ill-considered Easter Rising that succeeded, Carroll says, ``only because of the incredible stupidity of the British reaction to it.'' ``Supply of Heroes'' is the story of Douglas Tyrrell, Anglo-Irish nobleman and captain in an Irish Regiment of the British Expeditionary Force; his sister Jane; and her lover Dan Curry, actor and Irish-Catholic patriot involved in the planning for the rebellion. It is a story about war and romance and all their attendant emotions, but above all it is a story about lack of certitude. Characters pass from hero to villain and back again as Carroll examines absolutes and finds them less than absolute, prompting both his characters - particularly Douglas Tyrrell - and his readers to begin to question these ``unquestioned truths.''
The novel reaches its climax at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. A group of soldiers takes sanctuary in the abandoned trenches of No Man's Land - deserters from the carnage of the brutal and archaic conflict raging on the moonscape above.
``It's exactly the position that a lot of us in the world today feel like we're in,'' says Carroll. ``In between these two great warring machines that are sort of out of control, this conflict going on above our heads.''
And lurking just beneath the surface in ``Supply of Heroes'' is another contemporary metaphor - the stalemated front and the ideological No Man's Land that separates Catholic and Protestant in Ireland today, the deeply entrenched prejudices that have left Ulster a spiritual moonscape. Another unquestioned truth for Carroll to ponder.
``It is an unquestioned truth that Ulster should be a part of the Republic,'' says Carroll. ``Well, I question it. I'm not saying it should or shouldn't be, but let's think about it.''
``The Anglo-Irish. There are Anglo-Irish that have been in Ireland for 250-300 years. How long do they have to be there? It'd be like our saying to the descendants of the Pilgrims: `You don't have any right to be here.'... The other thing is geography. Until this century and modern road building and all, Dublin was in another world.''
It is Carroll's virtue that in a situation where everyone has a passionate and unequivocal answer he recognizes that there is no unequivocal answer and that the arduous process toward a solution cannot begin until the partisans abandon those notions.
He deplores the outlawed Irish Republican Army but condemns with equal ardor the British oppression of the Catholics in the North. Like the antagonists, he deals in rhetoric; but his are not the shrill and certain platitudes of a Belfast soapbox but rather the impassioned and erudite pleas of his novel: the need to cross No Man's Land with understanding and words, not hatred and arms; to check the ``rampant tendency to see others as our enemies;'' to question unquestioned truths.