ON THE ROAD between Malin More and Glencolumbkille, on the westernmost peninsula of Donegal in northern Ireland, a handsome hotel stands quite by itself on a hillside. You can have a fine meal there -- a good thing, too, because you can't have any sort of meal anywhere else for miles and miles -- and enjoy good service and study the sheep on the opposite hill while you dine and watch the sun set slowly across the waters on Malin Bay. But afterward -- if you're staying in a Glencolumbkille farmhouse, as I was a couple of years ago -- you must take your life in your hands and brave the fog and the treacherous, narrow road that twists across a landscape so barren, so alien, that it might be the mountains of the moon dressed up with purple heather, muddy sheep, and the ever- present mist.
Irish novelist Patrick McGinley has made this Donegal setting, and the sturdy people who survive it for the length of their lives, indisputably his own.
McGinley began with Bogmail, published in England in 1978 and here in 1981, a story of Donegal that is as funny as it is fierce, and followed that critical triumph with Goosefoot (1982) and Fox Prints (1983, but not published in the United States). Those two have English settings as well as Irish (McGinley himself now works for a London publisher and lives in Kent), but his 1983 novel, Foggage returned to Ireland and probed pretty deeply, and with great success, into the dark and sometimes devastating secret lives of the Irish. The Trick of the Ga Golga, his fifth novel, goes back specifically to the Donegal of Bogmail and, if we overlook its terrible title, it is his best and most ambitious novel yet.
Coote, an Englishman in his thirties and "a man of many part-selves," goes off to remote Donegal to "find unity of experience" while chaotic war breaks out in Europe in the 1940s. He settles into a rundown farmhouse and slowly, living like the local people, is absorbed into the rhythm of the land and the seasons, into the life of the tiny village and its characters. And there is plenty here for him to absorb in turn. There is the lifelong feud between two cantankerous farmers, Salmo and the Proker. There are two very different women, the earthy Imelda and the aptly-named Consolata. There is Consolata's father, the schoolmaster, Timideen; McNullis, the priest; McNelis, the doctor; Blowick, the local police sergeant; Ned Curran, the steadfast farmer who can build a better haystack than any man; and Doogan, the publican who hammers together coffins in his back room.
THERE'S also the dead Englishman who floats ashore one night on the tide with s300 in his pocket, which the priest at once appropriates to build a bridge across the inlet. Then there's the tragicomic race between a donkey and a dying horse. And there's a brutal murder . . . or what appears to be a murder. And the mystery of the split potatoes. And a suicide. And an angry wronged husband. And, most telling of all, there is Coote's wondering whether he is the catalyst that set all of the trouble in motion.
That question, in fact, is at the heart of this book. Can this life, with its ancient rhythms and patterns, be changed? Can a stranger become part of it, or is it a closed circle? Symbolically, although McGinley is never heavy-handed about this, Coote is engaged to design the local bridge. Despite blessings by the priest and the strength of primitive rituals, Coote has a hard time of it. The world he has touched resists him. It is "a world elsewhere," a place "where history and geography are not just subjects in a school curriculum but belligerent giants forever at variance." It is a world where a humble farmer's life can be "passionately narrow," yet he may speak with elegance of another man's "fatal flaw." For Coote, participation at all in this world is "an intoxicant."
The particular locale of the story lies in the shadow of a mountain, "Screig Beefan, mute but not long-suffering, in a tunic of ferns that concealed a heart of stone." That is the key to understanding. "In a place like this, sanity and salvation were to be found in ritual and magic -- in establishing a precise order of actions that in time would become the prescribed order with its own value and significance." It is not so much that man seems small, but that man persists in a context that is larger than himself, and long-lasting. The survivors are the ones who see this.
McGinley's story is by turns funny and ferocious. His characters live. His dialogue rings true. His world is as real as the book in your hand. His writing combines the unrelieved darkness of John McGahern, the grim solemnity of Bernard MacLaverty, and the dry, controlled elegance of William Trevor, and then adds a generous touch of ribald Irish earthiness. In the end, this intensely Irish novel is really about people who "live in one another's pockets." And you don't have to be Irish for that. By Alan Ryan; Alan Ryan's most recent novel, "Cast a Cold Eye," is set in Ireland. A collection of his short stories, "The Bones Wizard," will be published this spring.