BOOK REVIEW / Orange turns towards green: Walking the dog - Bernard MaClaverty: Cape pounds 14.99

AFTER seven years of absence from the fiction front - dogged by doubts about his writing - Bernard MacLaverty is back - like the pop-up patron saint of stoics we always knew he was. Too often his detractors have reviewed him blindly, missing those strands of humour that seem to vie with his lyrical impulse, his subtle way of caressing the details that really count in rendering lives that are trapped in a world of half-made dreams.

Walking the Dog, his fourth collection, stakes out that territory once more, taking up where The Great Profundo (1987) seemed to end, catching its characters in collision or collusion with life's events and with each other, a world in which memories and words are potent weapons - sometimes subversive, allusive, ever ready to bite, more like the terrorists than the dog in MacLaverty's title tale: 'Get in,' says the guy with the gun who takes John and his hound on a night drive through Belfast. 'Nice and slow or I'll blow your . . . head off.' Is he Protestant or Catholic? is the nub of their inquisition. 'Can you say the Hail Mary? To save your bacon?'

Tense and intricate though it is, the jiggery-pokery here is laced with piggery-jokery. At one point the terrorists stop the car at lights which change 'from orange to green.' This is subtle, allusive and wryly ironic to anyone reading with even a passing knowledge of Ulster's riven politics.

It is slippery stuff, but not half as vaporous or elliptical as the stories in italics (ten in all) concerning 'Your man', the author's 'beleagured alter ego.' They serve to counterpoint the main tales, to offer a minimalist glimpse of 'your man' in action - an expert in frittering valuable moments, pondering such matters as the labyrinthine nature of narrative, and the author's multiple roles as collector, dispenser and steward of the language.

These pieces earn - and deserve - little more than fleeting attention. They are doodles, the dandiest of which present thoughts aspiring to be ideas, but which lack the roots from which to grow, or to tap our complicity. But there also some richly moving, precise and exacting tales here. These often concern themselves with risk, with senses alerted as characters enter strange terrain, sometimes alien, even hostile.

A Silent Retreat brings together a Catholic boy, considering his vocation for the priesthood, with a B-special policeman guarding a jail, swapping theological notions, cigarettes, and discovering common ground in doubt. Prisoners of history, they press against the certainties to come, holding out for alternatives, for other lives.

'Fuck the Pope and No Surrender,' resounds more than once, yet small surrenders are characteristic of the obliqueness of these tales: a chess grandmaster offers a draw to a 13-year-old on holiday in Spain; a teacher visiting the cancer ward sees a friend submit, amid whiskey and stoic wisecracks, to stealthy death. Many of the characters bear the wounds of the past. but 'In Bed', meanwhile, reverses the coin and posits hope: there is a splendid dignity marked by devotion in the way a mother tends the bedside of her daughter stalked by long illness.

The compassion and humanity of these stories is served, not eclipsed, by MacLaverty's eye for telling details; these are placed like small sacraments of ordinariness amid the emotional deeps and implied understandings. At their very best his tales are poised and beautifully balanced, outward yet intimate, graced by both subtlety and substance. In Walking the Dog he proves his talents as a miniaturist once more.

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