MARY LAVIN's STORIES are like small rubbings on stone. They consist of understated pictures nearly always with a hint of something more, something missed. In "Eterna," the concluding story in her newest collection, a stunted country doctor relives a brief encounter years earlier with a novice in a convent. On its face, the event is trivial. Yet for the doctor, and maybe the nun, the meeting is eternal. There are suggestions of an odd lust, of unfulfillment, of romantic yearning. It is hard to know what Lavin wishes us to make of this chance scraping of human feeling. The story is gone before she will really say.
Mary Lavin's landscape, like Joyce's, is that misty, velvet world on the fringe of Europe known as Ireland. And somewhat like Joyce, her people are unholy canons; thwarted lovers, children, Dubliners, stooped and hoary women who hobble out of cottages in the countryside.
Lavin isn't native Irish, as Joyce was. She's from East Walpole, Massachusetts, having emigrated the other way with her folks when she was ten. She lives now in County Meath and in Dublin with her Australian husband and is considered among the country's finest writer. It is hardly news that the great Irish literary tradition has suffered in recent decades; Lavin's two novels and 14 books of short stories are helping restore it.
The title story of The Shrine & Other Stories is the longest and probably the most opague. It is about greed and trading on the Temple steps. A lonely canon with growing liver splotches on the backs of his hands has erected an enormous granite grotto on the spot next to his country church where the Blessed Mother and several of the saints are said to have appeared. The place stands in a "shamble of wooden stalls" where trinkets and other ersatz holiness are mindlessly peddled to stray pilgrims.
The apparition hasn't been officially recognized yet by Mother Church (for one thing, those who testified were said to be drunk), but that hasn't stopped the canon's dreams. He plans to pave paradise and put up a parking lot; also a spanking hotel. Just now, though, as he and his young niece - the only loving relationship he's ever known - pull up to inspect the shrine, "there was no sign of life except for a fat pigeon pecking at the litter in the gutter."
Things go haywire. Priest and niece fall out. Money greed turns quickly to emotional greed. At the end, the twisted old canon is trying to wreck his niece's coming marriage and her fiance's career. The story's last words, uttered in a phone conversation, are "God bless." The scene is local, the point iniversal.
Other stories limn relationships between a father and daughter revisiting native ground, between a young couple playing at archaeology. In all of them Lavin's ear for Irish speech, especially speech of countrysiders (or "coultees," as they're called by city slickers), is near-perfect. "Is it wanting to know the way to Dublin you are, sir?" asks an old man by the side of the road; you can almost hear the music of his inflections. "Sure, you're the dead spit him," says a woman made ugly by age. The images are on, too. Depressions come down over someone "like a snuffer." An old nun runs beads between her forefinger and thum" as if she were fashioning pellets of bread, or rolling pills."
Like J.F. Powers, who has chinked out for himself the mythical bishoprics of the upper Midwest, Mary Lavin's literary geography is not large. But then neither is Yoknapatawpha County. There is more than enough for her in her green universe, and this she has demonstrated once more.