The Love of the Irish
and the clash of ideas
in modern America

''Flynn's World''
By Gregory Mcdonald
(Pantheon Books, 213 pps., $23)

Reviewed by John Orr
June 2003

It's fun to think of an Irish brogue when reading Francis Xavier Flynn's dialogue in ''Flynn's World,'' the first appearance of Gregory Mcdonald's fascinating No Name agent in nearly 20 years.

For instance, when a captain of the Boston Police Department is questioning Flynn's work record:

''Tell me, Frank: how are you?''

''Better than you, apparently.''

''How's your appendix?''

''I haven't heard from it lately.''

''Could that be because you've had it removed twice? These records indicate you've had two leaves of absence to have your appendix removed.''

''It keeps growing back,'' Flynn said. ''I'm that healthy.''

But when the captain complains to higher authority about those absences and the five leaves Flynn took to bury his mother, the police commissioner says '''I visited him, personally, in the hospital, both times. That his mother has died five times? I attended every funeral, myself. Even sent flowers.''

Flynn's protected, of course, because he's really an international agent, star of three previous Mcdonald novels, and only ''lying doggo'' as a police inspector in order to let certain enemies continue thinking he has died.

But he keeps himself busy as a sort of detective in Boston, and ''Flynn's World'' finds him eccentrically but effectively working at three main mysteries: Who nailed his daughter's boyfriend's ear to a tree in a cemetery, and why; how is it a certain Boston detective only arrests people of color and never arrests white suspects; and who is attacking an elderly Harvard professor for his belief in eternal ideas.

I laughed myself silly while reading this amusing book, and enjoyed the mysteries of it well enough, but reveled in its ideas, which are vital and timely.

The latter of the three stories is, perhaps, most to the point: Professor Louis Loveson, who has written of the importance of ideas over time. ''It is the idea itself that must continue to fulfill some human need, for that idea to survive. ... Of course the object of the myth isn't necessarily true. It is the continuing human need for it that is true.''

Loveson's ideas are finding fewer students in the computer-dominated world, where information may be automatically kept in data banks, but the meaning of it only filters out to an increasingly smaller number of actual thinkers.

Professor Donald Carver is the other side of the coin. He dismisses Loveson's thinking as defending ''the superiority of the white male'' and faults him for believing ''in an elite, the idea of a group of people taught to make and exercise value judgments for all of us.''

While Flynn is interviewing Carver, Carver's children are running amok -- breaking things, cursing, ignoring their father's gentle requests that they clean up their messes. ''I have no more right to admonish my children than they have to admonish me,'' Carver tells Flynn.

''Then what in God's name are you doing here?'' Carver asks him.

''I'm not here in God's name, copper. Neither are you.'' Carver replies. ''There is no authority in this world, or above it. And that includes you!''

And there is Flynn's own household, where the children are busy reading and practicing their instruments for family musicales, and where his little daughter Jenny wonders why Flynn calls her ''Fluff.''

''I'm as ... hard as the boys,'' she says. ''Determined, yes,'' Flynn agrees.

''... this man doesn't think of this daughter as soft.''

''You call me "Fluff.''

''It's that a man's love for his daughter is soft. It's the softest love that he has.'' Jenny was thinking. ''It's not you that's soft, Jenny. it's my love for you that's soft.''

With the speed of a small bird, Jenny raised her head. She kissed his chin.

''Now, then: Will you still permit me to call you "Fluff'?''

''Oh, yes.'' Her head was back on his chest. ''But not in public.''

There are moments of violence and action, and lots of laughs, but largely this is an extended prose poem, elegantly constructed with interlocking ideas, all of a piece in just 213 highly satisfying pages.

Mcdonald makes clear what he believes before the first chapter, with his frontispiece quote: ''If chaos is to be avoided, probably it is necessary to assume that we are coming from somewhere, and, to presume that we are going somewhere.''

And who is he quoting? That sage of New England, late of Tennessee, Gregory Mcdonald.


Visit Gregory Mcdonald's website.