BETWEEN THE WINESTales of a wild Irish rompIf Lawrence Donegan wasn't Scottish, he'd be Southern. It's in his rhythm, it's in his sense of humor, and frankly, it's in his packing style.
When Donegan gave up his job at the London Guardian to find peace and honest work in the wild, unspoiled beauty of Ireland, he winnowed his possessions down to a few essentials: five books, five shirts, five T-shirts, five pairs of Lee jeans, five pairs of boxers, five computer games, five golf clubs and 1,500 albums. My record collection was my autobiography, mourned Donegan, who in yet another previous life played bass for the Bluebells and Lloyd Cole and the Commotions. He tried to trim it down to five albums and five singles, but ultimately took them all, even the Duran Duran, piled into a 1983 Nissan and headed off to live in a holiday cabin near his girlfriend's family farm. (Cue the pouring rain, the mildew, the rats, the pregnant feral cat.)He finagles a job on a friend-of-a-friend's cattle farm (cue the theme to All Things Great and Small), de-horning cattle and scrubbing down the barns. I passed a few minutes watching one of the hornless cows trying to empty the remnants of the previous night's rainfall from the hole in its head. . . . David Attenborough didn't know the half of it. There was enough water in there to fill a teapot. It takes only three weeks for it to become clear to all that animal husbandry is not Donegan's strong suit but not before he nearly bankrupts the farmer by taking his cows to auction, or before he falls straight into the hole they've just dug for a deceased specimen.
Just in time, he picks up a copy of the 32-page biweekly Turconaill Tribune, where his journalistic fancy is caught by a medical column on flatulence that begins, Everyone has wind; if you don't you're not alive, and marches into the office applying make that begging for a job. And so the adventure begins.
No News at Throat Lake is the story of Donegan's life among the natives of the small Donegal village of Creeslough (the throat lake of the title). People here have just got two gears, dead slow and stop, says a villager. The Tribune is the sort of newspaper that runs pictures of the community band and at least one priest per issue, allows the retiring police chief to claim six crimes a year even when it's actually only two or three, and, thanks to a combination of typos and phonetic Gaelic, manages to profane any number of virtuous endeavors.
Affectionately acerbic, Donegan is a hipper Peter Mayle in Provence, to whose rather sleeker blockbuster A Year in Provence Donegan frankly refers more than once. (Among his five essential books are The Catcher in the Rye and Trainspotting, a pairing that is a fair indication of his half-ironic, half-faux naif style.) But his pratfalls are both more painful and more familiar than Mayle's culture-gap dances with his artisanal neighbors. Donegan writes a frankly disastrous poem, meant to be anti-sentimental and ironic, on the anniversary of Princess Diana's death, and the Tribune's readership rises up in righteous fury.
One of the funniest and longest-running motifs involves Donegan's Quixotic attempt to play on the parish Gaelic football team, despite the fact that he knows nothing about the game and has no athletic talent for it. Told by his editors that making the team will secure him a place in the villagers' hearts, Donegan realizes that it's time to make friends in Creeslough. For one thing, the feral cat has just had three kittens. It won't take much of the fun out of the story to tell you the cats are still in residence when, thanks to a Commotions' reunion, Donegan leaves his private paradise for the big world again.
Of course, in the book itself, the alcohol is pretty much limited to beer and whiskey; but there's something (from a safe distance anyway) about the smell of the rain and the sea and the fireplaces and the barns and the sheer sweet beauty of deliberate and intelligent idiosyncrasy that suggest the blend of wood, dark sweetness, and fruit you can only find in a port, and a tawny at that.
Tawny ports are livelier than the richer vintage ports, but just as polished and engaging, like a cavalry major in the service of a veteran colonel. Among 10-year-old tawnies there are lots of layered-fruit blends, rich and spicy as Victorian compotes, with whiffs of currents and walnuts and chocolate and even whispers of coffee in the mix. They're like Irish coffees with a velvet surface, and one of the nicest and easiest to find is the Taylor Fladgate, usually priced in the mid-$20s.
Eve Zibart is a restaurant critic for the Washington Post.