McGahern writes beautifully, and he obviously has a keen eye - his portraits of the various Irish men and women who populate these stories are well-drawn, and he evokes not only the speech but the total experience of the Irish very well. If only these stories weren't - at least for the most part - so bleak, I could personally enjoy them much more. There's humor to be found within this volume, for sure - but for the most part I found hopelessness and resignation and emptiness and pathos. Far too many of these tales - for my taste - involved people who were living in doubt: doubt about their lives, their loves, their faith, their very place in life, the very land in which they dwell. Doubt is not necessarily a bad thing - it calls us (hopefully) to reassess our beliefs and values, so that we may, when needed, reorder our lives. The doubt that has entered the lives of these characters, however, seems to cover them like a blanket - and rather than struggle with it, they seem to welcome its false warmth, pulling it more tightly about their shoulders.
The stories take place in an Ireland in flux - torn between its spirited yet peaceful, more agrarian past, and the `new' world that encompasses industry and the so-called luxuries of modern life. It's a change that has obviously ripped the very heart and soul out of many of these characters - even the ones whose stories are clearly taking place, more or less, in the present. They inwardly and silently bemoan their state, yet they do nothing about it - and many of them use this dissatisfaction to justify the shallowness and dishonesty of the lives they lead.
All that being said, I did find a good deal of fine reading in this collection - especially the stories `The wine breath' and `Swallows'. For me, these two stand head and shoulders above the rest - but different ones will no doubt appeal to different readers. McGahern's writing is clear and powerful - I certainly wouldn't recommend any reader passing him by. At the same time, I don't think I'd put him on a level with the short stories of James Joyce. For modern Irish stories, I'll take the work of William Trevor any time.
I have McGahern's novel BY THE LAKE - I've read many good things about it, and I look forward very much to reading it. Some things I've read about another novel of his, THE DARK, are intriguing as well.