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Originally published Friday, August 5, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"Booking Passage": An Irish way of storytelling

Pause for a moment to admire the title, which is Lynch the poet at his best. To make permanent, in a book, what is merely transient, to freeze...

Special to The Seattle Times

"Booking Passage: We Irish and Americans"
by Thomas Lynch
W.W. Norton, 296 pp., $24.95

Pause for a moment to admire the title, which is Lynch the poet at his best. To make permanent, in a book, what is merely transient, to freeze what is fleeting: Booking Passage. This is the aim of verbal art, especially that of poetry.

If "Booking Passage: We Irish and Americans" were ever to be recorded on tape, the only voice suitable would be that of the late Irish character actor, Barry Fitzgerald. Resurrection should present no problem to Thomas Lynch, who, like his father and brother, is a diplomate in mortuary science. He is the author of books about what he himself calls the undertaker's "dismal trade" as well as several books of poetry.

His book is occupied with death and funerals and burials, mostly of his own Irish kin, but no one could possibly call it dismal, for it is a celebration of the joys of being an American descended from what he depicts as a kind of pre-exilic Eden: John Bull's other island.

Why Lynch should elect to live in Detroit is about as mysterious as why he should choose a livelihood of preparing corpses for burial or cremation, for America could hardly contain a place more antithetical than Motown to the green and lovely countryside of Ireland.

The worst peril faced by Lynch is probably that of falling into the Barry Fitzgerald clichés — top o' the mornin', the dear knows, etc., etc. — things that any standup comic can do by the yard — but he seems at times deliberately to risk this for the sheer hell of it.

For instance, when a missing man is found dead in a pub toilet, Lynch is not above this: "Killed in a loo in Killaloe — Bejaysus if it doesn't prove that Himself is an almighty Joker after all." I do not find it in the least offensive. He is a poet, after all, with a genuine sense of the limits of language, and he tells his story with humor and occasionally with pathos.

The story is simply that of returning, over and over, to renew himself in his origins, while attending to family duties of the most serious kind.

And sharing the bitterness of the national fate. Being myself partly Irish and a South Carolinian into the same bargain, I understand how Lynch can despise the English overlords.

Inherited bitterness is the most implacable of all. He feels for the English what I was brought up to feel by a generation of schoolmarms, some of whom had experienced Northern atrocities in our own little town, for Yankee imperialism long before that term became international.

Lynch's book is full of incident, touching and hilarious, and repays serious attention. It also repays frivolous attention. It is a good read even for those who have not the least ancestral or national bias — for those who desire civilized entertainment along with brilliant narrative.

Clarence Brown, a Seattle resident, is professor emeritus of comparative literature at Princeton.

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