FIVE YEARS AGO Benedict Kiely published a collection of short fiction called The State of Ireland. I read it and found it an unqualified success, witty, sophisticated, ironic, and deeply affecting. In 17 stories and a novella, especially in the novella, Kiely had managed to capture the turf-scented flavor of rural Ireland with all its contradictions: earthy humor and prudishness, good fellowship and sectarian animosity, and, above all else, a devotion to the past that distorts as much as it remembers. The novella Proxopera that concludes the volume is essentially a meditation on memory: the vivifying love of the elderly, reluctant hero for whom every plot of land and turn in the road evoke childhood friendships and young love, making him incapable of being a proxy murderer in his own town for the Provos who hold his family hostage.

Kiely's latest novel, Nothing Happens in Carmincross, a savagely ironic title, resumes the theme of Proxopera, but what had been a suite is now a whole symphony. The retired schoolmaster, given to the occasional literary allusion, is transmuted into a garrulous, quotation-spouting English professor returning to Ireland from a lush academic paradise of beautiful young women in the American South to attend his favorite niece's wedding. His goal is Carmincross, an Eden of its own as lovely as its name, redolent of childhood memories and of a time when religious differences and social distinctions did not lead to bloodshed.

But to get there, Mervyn (a.k.a. Merlin) traverses a good part of Ireland, accompanied by Deborah, a once and future lover, whose estranged husband (a.k.a. Mandrake) shadows them on their journey like the legendary Fionn in mad pursuit of his young wife, Grainne, and her reluctant lover, Diarmuid. But there's nothing reluctant about Mervyn, the quintessential homme moyen sensuel. He woos Deborah with middle-aged ardor and a constant stream of anecdotes derived in no particular order from Irish legend and ballads, contemporary accounts of atrocities, and a fair sampling of English literature, chiefly of the Elizabethan variety. Meanwhile, Mervyn himself is being pursued, via transatlantic phone calls, by a former lover in New York who had recently traded him in for a young Lochinvar from the Gulf oil rigs.

But while these ironic ad emotional entanglements are central to the slender plot line that holds this picaresque novel together, they are not really what the novel is about or what it's for. That has to do with Ireland, its past and its present, and the way the two have been fused into an explosive amalgam of bitterness, resentment and terror. Make no mistake about it, this is a novel with a thesis, and one that will not endear Benedict Kiely to the supporters of NORAID -- or of Ian Paisley. Enjoying their honeymoon on the way to the wedding, Mervyn and Deborah are constantly reminded and remind one another of the scars that sectarian conflict has left on themselves and on their friends as well as on the psyche of their race. Some of the scars are external -- burnt- out buildings and mangled bodies; others have worked their way inward, quietly destroying friendships and, worse, the imaginations of a whole generation.

With his quick wit and his knowledge of history, Mervyn remains for the most part detached from the debacle. He is a willing exile intent on remembering a boyhood in more innocent, if not more just, times. His American connection and his academic skepticism provide distance from the very horrors he regularly recounts. But Ireland is not forever gentle with her returning sons, and by the time Mervyn and Deborah reach Carmincross for the much awaited wedding, disaster strikes at the very heart of his happiness, first at his niece and later, indirectly, at Deborah herself. Mervyn escapes injury but not scars.

THERE IS much to admire about this novel. Mervyn, for all his ironic detachment, is an engaging character, the non-heroic hero of so much of our contemporary fiction. And the language! Kiely has learned from the master Joyce how to make words dance to a variety of tunes. He can even squeeze out of the most inane ditties a sardonic commentary on the fatal follies of his countrymen: "Day's work, week's work as we go up and down, there are many firebombs all around the town." That's about two teen-age girls who deliver 10 firebombs in a pram with two babies in it. Reading Kiely is like listening to a very talented storyteller with an endless supply of anecdotes and a sharp eye for the absurdities of the human condition. And right there is the main problem with the novel. It lacks exactly that terse and tense structure which makes Proxopera such a memorable story. The capacious form works here at cross purposes with the very theme the novel wishes to explore; the piling up of anecdote and example distracts attention from the horror at the center. Less is more, after all. $90.By John B. Breslin; Breslin, S.J., is the director of Georgetown University Press. He also teaches fiction in the university's English department.