BOOK REVIEW / Boiled-down encounters: Walking the dog by Bernard Mac Laverty: Cape pounds 14.95

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The Independent Culture
RAYMOND CARVER once remarked that 'a little menace' in a short story is not only good in itself but good for circulation. The stories in Bernard Mac Laverty's third collection offer low-key, close-up glimpses of ordinary Irish lives momentarily touched by forces that catch them off guard and threaten to annihilate them.

Under its deceptively banal title, the chilling title piece records how a Belfast man, out walking the dog one evening, is kidnapped by two terrorists who, in a bizarre examination of tribal loyalties, turn out to be UDR men posing as members of the IRA, seeking to know whether he is a Fenian or one 'of their persuasion'. It ends with the man abruptly restored to his ordinary life, listening to 'the clinking of the dog's identity disk'.

The best of these tough, mixed and mixed-up stories give us comparable studies of threatening intimacy - or intimacy threatened. Mac Laverty chooses moments when his characters find themselves confronting something that snaps the spell of habitual identity. Some grow out of the familiar seed-bed of Ulster sectarianism: in 'A Silent Retreat' a Catholic schoolboy with a vocation for the priesthood strikes up a troubled intimacy closeness with a bored B-special; in another story a boy goes to pay his respects to a dead protestant neighbour in a house 'the mirror image of his own', only to confront a bigot's corpse dressed in 'the whole regalia' of the Orangeman. Two of the best stories record the kind of frayed conversation this author specialises in, between a mother and daughter and husband and wife on holiday in Spain; with meticulous psychological and vocal fidelity he shows the protagonists dealing with familiar tourist embarrassments, while at a deeper level they are playing out repressed familial dramas on a tacky foreign stage.

In most of these studies, however, the real foreigner is death or his dismal sidekick, terminal illness. The last two stories are intimate conversation pieces, with imminent deaths from cancer hovering in the wings. One is an uneventful childhood episode, a boy's visit to his grandparents, in which we gradually infer from the muffled talk that the boy's father is about to die, as Mac Laverty's own father died when he was on the verge of adolescence. The other is an account of visits by the same character, now a teacher smuggling in consoling bottles of whisky for a sad, companionable boozer, a substitute father, wasting away in hospital. He speaks ironically of the Calvinist shape of the half-bottle, 'made flat like that for the pocket . . . no bulge, no evidence . . . a design to fit the Scots and the Irish psyche.'

The same might be said of the stories. Mac Laverty writes a spare, functional prose, leaving the real dramatic significance of these close encounters to boil off in the taut, naturalistic dialogue of his intimately trapped nondescripts. Interwoven with the fly-on-the-wall transcripts, however, is a series of italicised, self-consciously significant parables (the first ominously called 'The Art of the Short Story') which only serve to underline the limitations of Mac Laverty's condensed style of story-telling. Menaced by forces beyond their ken, his characters trap their author within the boundaries of their own language. You can hear the depressing clinking of that bare identity disk as the dog walks on.

(Photograph omitted)