An enormous liquid mirror
We'd all be Irish if we could live in this lakeside community
It's difficult to suppress a yawn at the announcement of yet another great Irish novel. At this point, it would be easier for a bad one to make headlines. Still - it's got to be said - "By the Lake," the latest from John McGahern, is wonderful. Nothing happens in it except for the rustle through a year with a few villagers, but the life McGahern resurrects here sounds like the melody of a forgotten favorite song. Indeed, no body of water has been so lovingly revered since Henry David Thoreau went to the woods.
But for McGahern, the lake is not a solitary vision, it's a communal one. The details of his story remind us with implicit censure of what busy, synthetic days we live, so removed from the mechanics of nature and camaraderie.
Joe and Kate Ruttledge escaped successful advertising careers in London by coming to the lake. Colleagues warned them such a move would be a professional disaster, but they persevered and managed to build something more satisfying on the water's edge than what they left in the city. They're sensitive and witty, knitted into the fabric of this village by a deep appreciation for all the strange, dear folk who come to tell them stories, offer advice, annoy them, and, in crisis, plead for assistance.
Their closest friends, an older couple named Mary and Jamesie, keep the fields alongside their own and pass into and out of their home as regularly and softly as the moon. They have not spent a night away from the lake for 17 years. "It doesn't take long to see everything you want to see in a city," Jamesie claims, but his little village offers endless fascination. He lives for gossip, a thirst that makes him prone to spying and fills him with childlike excitement at the arrival of anyone new or, more likely, the return of anyone old.
Among his most newsworthy subjects is John Quinn, the polite but comically oversexed neighbor who once consummated his remarriage while guests at the wedding reception pretended not to look.
He also keeps an eye on poor Bill Evans, an orphan raised as a virtual slave on a nearby farm. Now, he bums cigarettes and looks forward to his Thursday trips to the care facility in town where he can enjoy a bath and a good meal.
For Kate and Joe, life is set by the regular needs of their sheep and these neighbors. On Sundays, Joe's wealthy uncle, "The Shah," drives over with his dog to enjoy dinner in the complete silence of gustatory reverence. Patrick, their wildly unreliable carpenter, has been building a shed next to the house for so long that it's difficult to tell if the structure is going up or falling down. He's more dependable as a mortician, but even that job eludes him sometimes.
Birthing lambs, mowing hay, telling a brother he can't come home, the scenes move as imperceptibly and beautifully as darkness fades to dawn. These are people "content to sit and watch the light." This pastoral realism catches the rhythm of personal rituals and verbal patterns that allow us to recognize and love one another. McGahern knows that "all the uncertain pauses of the heart are audible in the simple string of words."
Though a newcomer, at least by the geological clock used by the village, Joe Ruttledge serves as the arbiter of every conflict, an adviser in every crisis. He helps his uncle sell the scrap yard to his manager, a man the Shah has worked alongside but not spoken to for 20 years. He mows a neighbor's field when rain threatens. He lays out a friend when the undertaker fails to arrive.
Through it all, McGahern conveys the profundity of ordinary lives, his wit and wisdom collecting as gently as dew. "The days were quiet," he writes. "They did not feel particularly quiet or happy but through them ran the sense, like an underground river, that there would come a time when these days would be looked back on as happiness, all that life could give of contentment or peace."
There's not a drop of blarney in this lake. McGahern luxuriates in simple details without falling into the damp sentimentality that can transform a village into a collection of Hummel figurines - or the opposite, equally offensive, tendency of discovering in the small hamlet a desperate collection of festering freaks. No, this would be paradise if it weren't frosted with sadness - for children never had, for faith lost, for brothers beyond reach. "Happiness could not be sought or worried into being, or even fully grasped," McGahern writes. "It should be allowed its own slow pace so that it passes unnoticed, if it ever comes at all."
It's easy, though sad, to imagine readers who will find this an interminable bore. A lake is not a river, after all. It doesn't go anywhere, but its action is subtler, its charms deeper. Take off your shoes as you approach the shore of this story. You're on hallowed ground.
Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor.