Colum McCann's Everything in This Country Must, a writer of fierce originality and haunting lyricism, turns to the troubles in Northern Ireland and reveals the reverberations of political tragedy in the most intimate lives of men and women, parents and children.
In the title story, a teenage girl must choose between allegiance to her Catholic father and gratitude to the British soldiers who have saved the family's horse. The young hero of Hunger Strike, a novella, tries to replicate the experience of his uncle, an IRA prisoner on hunger strike. And in Wood, a small boy does his part for the Protestant marches, concealing his involvement from his blind father.
Writing in a new form, but with the skill and force and sparkling poetry that have brought him international acclaim, Colum McCann has delivered masterful, memorable short fiction.
McCann, who distinguished himself among the impressive flood of recent Irish writers being well-published stateside with his remarkable book of stories, Fishing the Sloe-Black River, and the equally well-received Songdogs and This Side of Brightness, shows off all his talents here, although with mixed results. The two very short stories that begin the book (the title story and "Wood") are sketches, really, and though written with great spirit, are extremely slight. "Everything in the Country Must" involves an archetypal figure struggling to save a horse in a flood, and is a kind of Beckett vignette with muscle. McCann shows he has an eye for dramatic dynamics, but is so untethered in his language ("I stretched wide like love and put one foot on the rock... ") that the narrative becomes annoying in its indulgence. "Wood" fares no better. Again, it is a small event rendered with a kind of mythical grandeur: "Daddy" was "so tall he could grab onto the rim of the door in the mill and pull himself up ten times." But Daddy has a fall, and the mother and young children must drag their cut of lumber to the mill for payment. The muted heroism is so coyly underplayed as to be transparent, which hardly prepares readers for the novella that ends this slender tome. At first blush, "Hunger Strike" is another one of those tales too encumbered by the too-familiar big "Oirish" themes of history, hunger, violence, protest. But the story of 13-year-old Kevin and his mother, holed up in a caravan on the Galway coast in order to avoid the spectacle of Kevin's uncle's slow death "on the blanket" in, presumably, Long Kesh prison, is a piece of work bound for anthology heaven. With the kind of imaginative verve that marked his earlier stories, McCann takes the interior world of this teenager--sneaking smokes from his guitar-playing mother, listening to rock 'n' roll on the radio, thinking of girls and his dead father--and unpacks it with loving delicacy. Kevin in his wanderings in this place he finds "stupid" meets an old Lithuanian couple who live by the shore; they take the boy into their home, and the old man teaches Kevin how to handle a kayak. To while away the excruciating days of the uncle's hunger strike, Kevin and his mother play chess and make sport of constructing new pieces out of bread and cocoa and then putting them in the fridge--they delight in eating "the Queen." There are no pat answers here, as the Lithuanian man, long ago self-exiled from his homeland, makes gently clear. And McCann startles just enough with beauteous phrases (a stone wall "runs like a bad suture towards the sea") and lasting images (Kevin doing his homework on a stool next to his mother at the piano, as she plays for tips in a Galway pub) to keep readers amazed and near tears. "Hunger Strike" builds toward the inevitable mentoring of young Kevin by the older Lithuanian, and the teaching runs both ways. Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea, just as inevitably, will come to mind.