A SINGULAR COUNTRY

By J.P. Donleavy

Norton. 198 pp. $18.95

Three years ago, J.P. Donleavy published "J.P. Donleavy's Ireland," a book subtitled, with a flourish of his stylistic swagger, "In All Her Sins and in Some of Her Graces."

It is Donleavy at his best, which can be very good -- an affectionate yet cool and distanced memoir of an Irish American who went to Dublin's Trinity College after World War II on the GI Bill, was caught up in Dublin's raffish literary and artistic Bohemia and emerged from it in the mid-1950s with "The Ginger Man," the novel that is one of the small, lively quirky masterworks of that time and place.

That Dublin, which soon will lie a half-century in the past, was a world with character and characters -- Brendan Behan, Patrick Kavanagh, Gainor Crist, Flann O'Brien, John Ryan, Anthony Cronin, Donleavy and Donleavy's ineffable creation, "the ginger man" himself, Sebastian Dangerfield. They all walk through the pages of "J.P. Donleavy's Ireland." On occasion, en route to a consoling bun and tea in Bewley's of Grafton Street. More often to one of the pubs off Grafton -- the Dawson Lounge, the Bailey in Duke Street, haunt of poets and painters, or, especially, McDaid's in Harry Street, patronized by poets, poetasters, retired gunmen and savorers of malt liquor. As I recall the McDaid's of a slightly later day, a table in the rear was known as "the intensive-care unit."

Tourists to present-day Dublin will find all of these establishments but they will look in vain for the ginger man, or for his creator. And if they are looking for J.P. Donleavy's Ireland, I commend to them the book of that name, rather than his newest, "A Singular Country," which seems to me a self-indulgent book, the work of a first-rate talent operating at half steam and toward no particular end.

Donleavy returned years ago to Ireland, and has been living on the shores of Lough Owel, near Mullingar, in the midlands. Some small portion of that large talent he has devoted to the creation of himself in the image of an Irish squire, and it has been an impressive success, to judge by photographs. One of these, appearing on the jacket of "A Singular Country," is almost worth the price of admission -- handsome gray-white beard, waistcoat with the last button undone after the fashion set by Edward VII, cap, jacket and knickerbockers of Donegal tweed, ribbed knee-socks, shotgun (it could be an actual Purley!) broken across his forearm.

Make no mistake -- I have only admiration for Donleavy's elaborate contrivances of self, and point to this one only to suggest that he is in all things a stylist, and, when he writes, a dandy of language. When a writer invests so heavily in sheer style, however, the besetting danger is self-indulgence. "A Singular Country" is intended, the dust jacket tells us, as his "idiosyncratic and personal view of Ireland told in the vernacular of the Irishman which he has nearly, but not quite, become."

But it is no such thing. Personal it may be, although his accounts of contemporary social types, the vanishing Anglo-Irish gentry and their affluent Catholic replacements don't break any new ground. Indeed, by lingering on as the objects of elegy and satire, the gentry may at last have discovered a social function for themselves. Idiosyncratic it may also be. But told in the vernacular of the Irishman it surely is not. Here is an early passage, representative, and not chosen in malice:

"For in truth Ireland is from one coast to another chock a block full of fine decent people, who although they are capable of putting you accidentally to death, would never countenance doing so deliberately, and never is there any doubt that permanent harm was meant. And so provided the marauder hasn't suffered total memory loss, and if you've been a tourist caught in the melee, his remorse and sincerest sympathy will be expressed when he comes to see you in your hospital bed and examines the fingerprints he left on your windpipe. And if the worst has happened you can be sure he'll be present with other mourners at your newly purchased grave site. And believe one thing, there is hardly anywhere left in the world to give you a better funeral and that, preceded by a gleeful wake."

That passage isn't really as bad as it sounds. The poet Patrick Kavanagh was eloquent in speech and print on the subject of "buck-lepping," a kind of "broth of a boy" style that leaped from glen to glen making uninhibited, manly and lyrically comical verbal gestures. A kind of Synge-song. Donleavy, too, is mocking that style here, but too much of "A Singular Country" is written in it, and it is allowed to do the work of observation, tension, contrast, challenge and those other tasks for which Donleavy is more than able. The reviewer, author of "The Year of the French" and "The Tenants of Time," writes frequently about Irish literature and history.