Death of a Chieftain: And Other Stories

John Montague, Author Irish American Book Company $11.95 (168p) ISBN 978-0-86327-673-6
Clairvoyant in its descriptive force--in these nine stories an old hotel is seen as a ""rogue mosque,"" an Irish mother's face is full of ""placid yearning"" over her son's attendance at London charity balls--Montague's collection penetrates the obscure corners of man's social and psychological experience. In ""That Dark Accomplice,"" a group of switch-whipped Catholic children, ""timid boys with Holy Water damp on their foreheads,"" rebel against the Dean who's been demoted from his English pulpit to their Northern Irish school. Booing and mimicking him after he imperiously (and obtusely) humiliates one of their number, the boys in turn reduce the Dean to tears--though they display more civility and self-mastery than he. In the more overtly Ulster story, ""The Cry,"" a London journalist, Peter Douglas, returns to his native town of Moorhill to visit his war-worn mother and fiercely republican father. Awakened in the middle of the night by the screams of what he thinks may be an IRA youth being beaten by the police, Peter faces the awful crux of his responsibility as a Catholic journalist and his obligation to protect his family, the beaten youth and all the Catholics in his town. Remarkable in the collection--and indeed in contemporary short fiction--is the title story, whose tequila-sodden and heart-heavy protagonist, Bernard Corunna Coote, is a lapsed Ulster Protestant seeking traces of a lost Celtic civilization in South America. Sloppily patrician, and consuming his meals ""like a bear let loose in a tuckshop,"" Coote joins the three other peculiar permanent residents of the Hotel Darien, rounding out their sweaty evening card games and becoming the object of menacing French Tarrou's envy. Here and elsewhere in the collection, Montague--to date, better known for his poetry--constructs his stories expertly. Proleptic beginnings jump ahead, and the narrative becomes preoccupied with backstory. Montague's (A Love Present and Other Stories) hyperawareness of the sounds of words and the connotations of dialect--a sensitivity due as much to his profession as a poet as his Irish nationality--make these technically proficient stories musical, oddly arresting and morally complex. (Apr.) FYI: Montague was named the first professor of poetry in Ireland in 1998.
Reviewed on: 03/29/1999
Release date: 04/01/1999
Genre: Fiction
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