[15 October 2008]
In today’s book publishing market, establishing oneself as a short story writer is no easy task. In her third collection, Walk the Blue Fields, Claire Keegan has proved her sweeping, persuasive, and individualistic talent as a writer. She’s also made a case for the merit of the expressive and direct short form: The stories themselves carry the air of the Irish simplicity and sparseness that are the subtext of each work. Keegan’s characters ask for nothing more than just enough. They dream but do not wish. They eat whatever is placed in front of them. Their souls fester or wander while their bodies stay steadfastly in place. Keegan’s stories do the same, emoting a callous independence that serves to hide a subsuming ache.
Keegan has mastered an understanding of the Irish people that she fillets into myriad characters of all sorts. They both expose a variety of timid sentiments and share things in common, which serves to unite the collection. It reads less like a series of short stories and more like a novel that happens to switch venues and protagonists in each chapter. There are two priests who break vows and fall in love with women, a number of men who would rather work than love, and women who are both ignited and heartbroken by their power to hope.
In “The Forester’s Daughter”, diligent forester, gruff father, and emotionally negligent husband Deegan has “little time to dwell on things”. That mentality resonates throughout the collection, and injects a pained, starving urgency into each piece. To “dwell” is a luxury and ultimately a foppery. It’s as though Keegan can only catch her characters for long enough to find material for short pieces. At the same time, each piece is saturated with the character’s uneasy contemplations, their relationships to each other, and the land. Deegan finds it easier to chain himself in shackles of efficiency and pragmatism than to be expressive or kind, even at the cost of loneliness and humiliation. While his tangible decline is coolly delivered in the nicely linear story arch, Keegan artfully tucks in heartbreaking tidbits. Rather, the lines that are heartbreaking to the reader serve merely to prick the fingertips of the characters. Keegan’s characters never succumb to hurt and her stories never bear the air of tragedy. Treating the dismay and dissatisfaction of her characters as a quiet inconvenience, the real tragedy of these stories is their tone of grim and expedient inevitability.
Critics have compared Keegan to Anton Chekhov, perhaps because she captures the pathos of an entire nationality the way he does. But none of the melodrama of Chekhov’s characters is present in Keegan’s. Though Chekhov’s are arguably resigned to their misery, they are self-important and often seeking answers and solutions. Keegan’s characters wouldn’t be caught dead doing something so actively “seeking”; addressing the need for solutions is for them too close to an admission of profound failure. But Keegan does capture the grueling synthesis of inevitable doom and elegant pride found both in Chekhov’s work and in the Irish people.
In the first story, “The Parting Gift”, the protagonist gives more weight to familial obligations and fidelities than she does her to experiences with sexual abuse. The latter are treated with a terse and stoic bitterness that only occasionally hints at spite. But her relationship to her family and land is expressed with open, aqueous ache. When she finally lets her emotions unhinge, both she and the reader have ambiguous feelings about what exactly it is that her tears reflect.
In that story, and in others, Keegan has an ability to weave together modern and traditional sentimentalities. In the title story, “Walk the Blue Fields”, a priest who is in love with a woman whose wedding he has just officiated. Weaving together the lure of Irish mysticism and the investigatory spirituality of current trends, Keegan sends him to a nameless Chinese medicine man for a cure. Often Keegan chooses metaphors that are grounded in physical, rather than psychological, realism to convey character growth. In this way, she remains faithful to gritty solidity of Irish tradition while feeding the modern reader’s thirst for inquisition and discovery.
Even the characters that develop the least have their moments. In the final story, Stack is a character that will choose alcohol and his pet goat over people, and yet he breaks into one woman’s soul by telling her, “your heart is already broken”. This is the story of the Irish people: an underlying pain that is both gruesome and unworthy of mention, and protected by the dependably vacant nature of hard work. Keegan’s accomplishment is a proactive reenactment of heartbreak, one that both drags in it in for inspection and further shrouds it in uncertainty.