This remarkable set of short stories, written with an eye for the small but telling details of daily life, conveys the excruciating burden of having an Irish soul. The stories are all set in Ireland, or among countrymen who have tried to flee the land only to find themselves tightly bound or stalked by their Irishness. A girl in the story "Martyrs" feels that for self-preservation she has to "leave a Catholic environment before it plunged her into a lifetime of introspection. . . . Sister Honor's last words to her, from behind that familiar desk, had been 'Your vocation in life is to be a martyr.' "
Some of the stories Hogan tells in the first person are about the town of his childhood. In "Teddyboys," Hogan recalls Jamesy, an idol of his youth. "Scandal broke like mouldy Guinness when apparently Jamesy was caught in the launderette making love to a girl. The girl was whizzed off to England." In the same story, Jamesy takes off his clothes and dives into the water of the river that gives the book its title. "Threads were whispered over the grass by spiders. Wet descended. The splash of water reverberated."
With uncomplicated sentences and forceful words, Hogan constructs a simple music with the cadence of blood pulsing. His sentences are characteristically short, so short that the occasional long, winding phrases read as if extruded in delirium or in a burst of rage. When Jamesy shows Hogan what he doesn't want to know--"that the human spirit is tarnished"--the young narrator says: " . . . in the silence of my room, a wind rushing on the river outside as swans flew over, in the tradition of my rural aunt, in the tradition of gipsies and the country Irish people rummaging with broken dolls, I cursed Jamesy."
The stories contain humor, albeit not of a lighthearted variety. A character in "A Man From Korea" talks "of the weather, the bog, her relatives in Armagh, Chicago, the Great Queen, Prince Phillip and lastly her dog, who'd jumped under a car one day when he'd been feeling--understandably--despairing."
The river is a common literary metaphor, but Hogan makes extraordinary use of it: with submersion in dreams, or as the wellspring of spirit at which the weary Irish can be refreshed. Hogan's river is the flow of the Irish race through history, to which anyone with a drop of Irish blood is inextricably linked. When a dear surrogate mother dies, the grieving narrator of the last story, "By the River," goes in search of the dead woman's aged mother. She appears to have escaped a stifling existence and found roots in the south of France. For a moment, freedom is possible: "She taught me that grey Irish rivers could become, however high the price, however unstable the mood, the intoxicated shade of the Mediterranean that day."