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Like McGinley's previous novels (Bogmail, Goosefoot, Foggage), this odd tale from rural 1940s Ireland combines unpremeditated homicide, illicit sex, bucolic surfaces, and darkly violent undercurrents--but the mood here is more grimly existential, less black-comic, than before. George Coote is a 30-ish, bearded Englishman who has stayed in Ireland as a retreat from life, from World War II in particular (despite gung-ho letters from chum Woodwind, who has enlisted). After a time in Dublin, Coote has now bought a stark little house-and-farm near the coast in Donegal--only to find himself in the literal midst of small-scale warfare: his neighbors on either side are aging, nicknamed bachelors--laconic ""Salmo"" on the one hand, ""the Proker"" (garrulous, violent) on the other--who are conducting a long-term, noisy feud. . . and both immediately want Coote as a new ally. Other unwanted signs of conflict also intrude: Coote discovers the drowned body of a Royal Navy officer; he becomes involved in the local debate over the proposed building of a small bridge--a quarrel which leads Coote to join in a bizarre donkey-race, complete with highly unorthodox play-by-play from the local schoolmaster. (""But look what's happening! The she-ass is defecating shamelessly and voluminously in the middle of the Ard Rua. . ."") And, worst of all, when ""the Proker"" pays a drunken, wild, assaulting visit to Coote, the would-be loner winds up as an unintentional killer, covering up the crime as best he can. Inevitably, then, feuder Salmo becomes the prime, soon-jailed suspect in this case--""the most popular murder since Rasputin's."" Coote writhes with guilt, trying to help innocent Salmo (who's curiously resigned to his fate) with a legal defense. More guilt will follow from Coote's two-timing affairs with a sensual married woman (who's sexually inventive) and a sweet young thing (who commits suicide). And after Coote's attempt to confess to the murder fails pathetically, this parade of horrific ""mischance"" finally comes to an end--with Coote's own grotesque, crucifixion-like demise. The point of it all? Well, both McGinley's theme and Coote's character remain rather murky here--despite periodic injections of musings on guilt, remorse, responsibility. ("" 'Is there something missing in my moral and emotional nature?' he asked himself. 'Or am I just remote from life as lived by other men, by Salmo, Woodwind, Churchill and Adolf Hitler? I know that the world I see with my eyes is not the world that Salmo sees, nor is it the world a dog or fish sees.' "") Still, if less engaging or coherent than McGinley's best work, this strange novel does display his distinctive gifts--for endowing eccentric Irish locals with both charm and creepiness, for creating a thickly effective atmosphere from the overlappings of death, sex, and brooding scenery.

Pub Date: April 10th, 1985
Publisher: St. Martin's