Cover image for By the lake
By the lake
McGahern, John, 1934-2006.
Personal Author:
First American edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Knopf : Distributed by Random House, 2002.
Physical Description:
335 pages ; 22 cm
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X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks
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Widely considered to be the finest Irish writer of fiction at work today, John McGahern gives us a new novel that, with insight, humor, and deep sympathy, brings to vivid life the world and the people of a contemporary Irish village. It is a village flirting with the more sophisticated trappings of modernity but steeped in the traditions of its unforgettable inhabitants and their lives. There are the Ruttledges, who came from London in search of a different life on the edge of the village lake; John Quinn, who will stop at nothing to ensure a flow of women through his life; Jimmy Joe McKiernan, head of the local IRA as well as town auctioneer and undertaker; the gentle Jamesie and his wife, Mary, who have never left the lake and who know about everything that ever stirred or moved there; Patrick Ryan, the builder who never quite finishes what he starts; Bill Evans, the farmhand whose orphaned childhood was marked with state-sanctioned cruelties and whose adulthood is marked by the scars; and the wealthiest man in town, known as the Shah. A year in the lives of these and other characters unfolds through the richly observed rituals of work and play, of religious observance and annual festivals, and the details of the changing seasons, of the cycles of birth and death. With deceptive simplicity and eloquence, the author reveals the fundamental workings of human nature as it encounters the extraordinary trials and pleasures, terrors and beauty, of ordinary life. By the Lake is John McGahern's most ambitious, generous, and superbly realized novel yet.

Author Notes

John McGahern was born in Dublin in 1934. He has received several awards for his writing, including the AE Memorial Award in 1952, for the manuscript of "'The Barracks," and British Arts Council awards in 1968, 1970, and 1973. His other books include "The Dark" and "Amongst Women," nominated for the Booker Prize in 1990.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

McGahern is a highly regarded Irish fiction writer, and his short stories (Collected Stories, 1993) are as famous as his novels. His latest tale is simply a joy to read. Although it lacks a strong, connective plotline, it is a triumph of setting and character. With Irish warmth and love of language, McGahern chronicles the lives of individuals in a small Irish community during a relatively short period of time. A sizable cast of characters can often mean that short shrift is given to developing any one of them fully, but McGahern renders all of them as the complex individuals they are. Readers will have their favorites among these villagers, but each one is an acquaintance gladly made. Although change does come to the lake--in the form of death as well as the new phone lines that connect even the remotest house--timelessness and ordinariness rise with the sun every morning. This is a beautiful pageant of contemporary Irish life that is also a lovely understanding of life in all its harmony everywhere. --Brad Hooper

Publisher's Weekly Review

McGahern (Amongst Women, etc.) expertly captures the rhythms of smalltown Irish life in a graceful but underplotted novel that takes a diverse and gregarious cast of local characters through a transitional period in a lakeside village. Much of the narrative revolves around the daily life of the Ruttledges, a farming couple who become the focal point of the village's social interaction after they leave the London rat race for a more peaceful life. The most engaging and colorful characters in the book are John Quinn, a local womanizer whose life becomes a source of gossip and controversy when his bride leaves him right after the wedding, and a figurehead known as "the Shah," the richest man in the village, whose decision to sell his business represents a turning point in the town's way of life. Lurking in the background is a shadier political figure, Jimmy Joe McKiernan, whose involvement with the IRA poses a different kind of threat to the rhythms of daily life whenever a bout of upheaval and violence erupts. McGahern gets plenty of mileage from the poignant scenes describing the rituals and chores of farming along with the common social affairs that form the backbone of daily life, but the absence of a strong story line reduces this book to an extended character study. The author's warm, flowing prose makes that study an enjoyable read, but readers who pick this up based on McGahern's track record for well-reviewed and award-winning novels may find themselves disappointed. (Mar. 11) Forecast: Nearly 10 years have gone by since the publication of McGahern's last book his Collected Stories so this offering will likely be thoroughly scrutinized by reviewers, for better or for worse. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Prize-winning Irish author McGahern observes a year in the life of a not-always-cozy community at the edge of a lake. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



The morning was clear. There was no wind on the lake. There was also a great stillness. When the bells rang out for Mass, the strokes trembling on the water, they had the entire world to themselves. The doors of the house were open. Jamesie entered without knocking and came in noiselessly until he stood in the doorway of the large room where the Ruttledges were sitting. He stood as still as if waiting under trees for returning wildfowl. He expected his discovery to be quick. There would be a cry of surprise and reproach; he would counter by accusing them of not being watchful enough. There would be welcome and laughter. When the Ruttledges continued to converse calmly about a visit they were expecting that same afternoon, he could contain himself no longer. Such was his continual expectation of discovery that in his eavesdropping he was nearly always disappointed by the innocence he came upon. " Hel-lo. Hel-lo. Hel-lo," he called out softly, in some exasperation. " Jamesie!" They turned to the voice with great friendliness. As he often stole silently in, they showed no surprise. " You are welcome." " Ye are no good. I have been standing here for several minutes and haven't heard a bad word said about anybody yet. Not a bad word," he repeated with mocking slowness as he came forward. " We never speak badly about people. It's too dangerous. It can get you into trouble." " Then ye never speak or if you do the pair of yous are not worth listening to." In his dark Sunday suit, white shirt, red tie, polished black shoes, the fine silver hair brushed back from the high forehead and sharp clean features, he was shining and handsome. An intense vividness and sweetness of nature showed in every quick, expressive movement. " Kate." He held out an enormous hand. She pretended to be afraid to trust her hand to such strength. It was a game he played regularly. For him all forms of social intercourse were merely different kinds of play. " God hates a coward, Kate," he demanded, and she took his hand. Not until she cried, " Easy there, Jamesie," did he release his gently tightening grip with a low crow of triumph. " You are one of God's troopers, Kate. Mister Ruttledge," he bowed solemnly. " Mister Murphy." " No misters here," he protested. " No misters in this part of the world. Nothing but broken-down gentlemen." " There are no misters in this house either. He that is down can fear no fall." " Why don't you go to Mass, then, if you are that low?" Jamesie changed the attack lightly. " What's that got to do with it?" " You'd be like everybody else round here by now if you went to Mass." " I'd like to attend Mass. I miss going." " What's keeping you, then?" " I don't believe." " I don't believe," he mimicked. " None of us believes and we go. That's no bar." " I'd feel a hypocrite. Why do you go if you don't believe?" " To look at the girls. To see the whole performance," he cried out, and started to shake with laughter. " We go to see all the other hypocrites. Kate, what do you think about all this? You've hardly said a word." " My parents were atheists," Kate said. " They thought that all that exists is what you see, all that you are is what you think and appear to be." " Give them no heed, Kate," he counselled gently. " You are what you are and to hell with the begrudgers." " The way we perceive ourselves and how we are perceived are often very different," Ruttledge said. " Pay no heed to him either. He's just trying to twist and turn. Thought pissed in the bed and thought he was sweating. His wife thought otherwise. You'll get on good as any of them, Kate." He took pruning shears from his pocket and placed them on the table. " Thanks," he said. " They were a comfort. Pure Sheffield. Great steel." " I bought them from a stall in the Enniskillen market one Thursday. They weren't expensive." " The North," he raised his hand for emphasis. " The North is a great place for bargains." " Would you like a whiskey, Jamesie?" she asked. " Now you're talking, Kate. But you should know by now that 'wilya' is a very bad word." " Why bad?" " Look at yer man," he pointed to where Ruttledge had already taken glasses and a bottle of Powers from the cupboard and was running water into a brown jug. " I'm slow." " You're not one bit slow, Kate. You just weren't brought up here. You nearly have to be born into a place to know what's going on and what to do." " He wasn't brought up here." " Not too far off, near enough to know. He wasn't at school but he met the scholars. Good health! And more again tomorrow," he raised his glass. " The crowd lying below in Shruhaun aren't drinking any drinks today." " Good luck. What's the news?" " No news. Came looking for news," he cried ritually, and then could contain his news no longer: " Johnny's coming home from England. He's coming home this Tuesday. Mary got the letter." Every summer his brother Johnny came home on holidays from the Ford factory at Dagenham. He had left for England twenty years before and never missed a summer coming home. " I'd be glad to run you to the station," Ruttledge offered. " I know that well, and thanks, but no, no." He raised the hand again. " Always go in Johnny Rowley's car. Jim is meeting Johnny at the airport and putting him on the train. Jim is taking time off." Jim was Jamesie and Mary's only child, who had been clever at school, had entered the civil service, where he had risen to a high position, and was married with four children in Dublin. " There was a time Johnny spent the night with Jim and Lucy in Dublin." " Not any more. Johnny and Lucy don't pull. He's not awanted. It's better, better by far the way it is. I'll meet the train with Johnny Rowley. We'll have several stops on the way from the station. When we get to the house, Mary will put the sirloin down. You can't get meat in England. You'd just love to see Johnny's face and the way he says 'God bless you, Mary' when she puts the sirloin in front of him on the table." The house and the outhouses would be freshly whitewashed for the homecoming, the street swept, the green gates painted, old stakes replaced in the netting wire that held Mary's brown hens in the space around the hayshed. Mary would have scrubbed and freshened all the rooms. Together they would have taken the mattress from the bed in the lower room, Johnny's old room, and left it outside to air in the sun. The holy pictures and the wedding photographs would be taken down, the glass wiped and polished. His bed would be made with crisp linen and draped with the red blanket. An enormous vase of flowers from the garden and the fields--roses and lilies and sweet william from the garden, foxglove and big sprays of honeysuckle from the hedges--would be placed on the sill under the open window to sweeten the air and take away the staleness and smell of damp from the unused room. The order for the best sirloin would already have been placed at Caroll's in the town. The house couldn't have been prepared any better for a god coming home to his old place on earth. " Johnny was the best shot this part of the country has ever seen. On a Sunday when all the guns gathered and they'd be blazing away, all Johnny had to do was to raise his gun for the bird to fall like a stone. He had two of the most beautiful gun dogs, Oscar and Bran, a pointer and a red setter. He had the whole world at his feet," Jamesie said. " He didn't have to lift a hand. All he had to do was go round and oversee what other men were doing. Yes, he could be severe enough and strict, too, in his own way . . . too exact when it wasn't needed. The whole country was leaving for England at the time and if any of them had a hope of Johnny's job there'd be a stampede worse than for a gold rush back from England. If anybody had told us what was going to happen we wouldn't have believed them. We'd have laughed. " He went after Anna Mulvey. He and Anna were the stars in The Playboy that got to the All-Ireland Finals in Athlone the year before but neither of them was fit to hold a candle to Patrick Ryan. He had Donoghue the solicitor in town down to a T as--I forget rightly who it was . . . Patrick had the whole hall in stitches every time he moved. Johnny was wild about Anna. We were sure Anna left for England to get away from Johnny. The Mulveys were well off and she didn't have to go. Then when she wrote to Johnny that she missed him and wanted him to come to England I don't think his feet touched the ground for days. We wanted him to take sick leave and go and test the water and not burn all his bridges but he wouldn't hear. If he'd heeded our words he could be still here." " Why would Anna write for him to come to England when she wasn't serious or interested?" " She was using him. She could be sure of adoration from Johnny. She had only to say the word and she'd get anything she wanted." " That was wrong," Kate said. " Right or wrong, fair or foul, what does it matter? It's a rough business. Those that care least will win. They can watch all sides. She had no more value on Johnny than a dog or a cat. " Poor Bran and Oscar. The gun dogs were beautiful. They were as much part of Johnny as the double barrel, and they adored him. The evening before he left he took them down to the bog with the gun. They were yelping and jumping around and following trails. They thought they were going hunting. I remember it too well. The evening was frosty, the leaves just beginning to come off the trees. There wasn't a breath of wind. You'd hear a spade striking a stone fields away, never mind a double-barrel. There was just the two shots, one after the other. We would have been glad to take care of the dogs but he never asked. I wasn't a great shot like Johnny but I would have kept the gun and the dogs. They were beautiful dogs. That evening a man came for the gun and another for the motorbike. He had sold them both. You'd think he'd have offered me the gun after all the years in the house. I'd have given him whatever he wanted." Excerpted from By the Lake: A Novel by John McGahern All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.