Bare-faced cheek

Patricia Craig reads a boys' own story of souped-up shenanigans; The Cove Shivering Club Michael Curtin Fourth Estate, pounds 8.99

This is a very Irish novel: it's obsessive, inflated, cliquish, and keeps its women on the sidelines. Narrated by Junior Rash (Junior? What kind of an Irish name is Junior?), it is all about male competitiveness and camaraderie, full of coded repartee and abundant in minor characters with monikers like Budge and Butch and Batsy and Kerr the Cop. It's a bit self-reflexive too. The narrator is a comic novelist based in Kensal Rise, author of such works as Hand Me Down and The Second-hand Wardrobe (Michael Curtin has written The Self-Made Men and The Plastic Tomato Cutter) though he spends a lot of time back in the west of Ireland carrying on with his old swimming mates: the Cove Shivering Club.

To join this virile body (men only, of course) you need to swim "bollock- naked" back and forth across the bay on a Good Friday, when the water is best described as "fresh". This feat is duly performed by Junior and his friend Dunstan Tucker, both aged ten, in 1955 - and a subsequent childhood disappointment, the failure of his father to raise the money for a week at the Seaside, warps Dunstan and leaves him with a mission in life: to get the better of banks. Dunstan's demented and convoluted financial dealings, and a Shivering Club presedential election, form the substance of Michael Curtin's plot.

The novel comes with an accolade from Roddy Doyle ("sparkling and hilarious"), and indeed it has something of Doyle's own gusto and demotic charm, laid on thick. However, it is likely that only those whose taste runs to masculine knowingness, endearing pugnacity or souped-up shenanigans, will get the most out of it. For the rest of us, I suspect, an element of tiresomeness may obstruct the fullest appreciation of its attitudes and antics. For example, the central financial idee fixe and its workings-out become increasingly over-elaborate.

And what are we to make of Junior's one-time schoolmaster, a Brother Chunkey, who first of all confesses to having had the hand of a cleaning woman up his soutane, and then goes on to clobber a pub singer in nun's garb calling herself Baptista and the Virgins? Perhaps the point is that there are no virgins in this act, just as the ex-Christian Brother himself embodies certain social upheavals in Irish life over the last 40-odd years - though what hasn't changed, it seems, is Irishmen's inability to embrace egalitarianism readily. Sexual appraisal, for example, still gets itself expressed in atrocious colloquialisms - "a terrific pair of diddies...would put a stalk on a dead Dominican".

The thing is to be as racy and incorrigible as possible. With The Cove Shivering Club, it's true, the narrator's ironic distance - all those "kids trying to be men and men hanging on to childhood", as he describes himself and his Swimming Club associates - helps to temper the endless knockabout loquacity, which threatens to become overwhelming, what with London-Irish, pub frequenters' and native barmen's palaver. And there are moments when salutary fun is poked at such importations from the modern world as the Social Services Centre. What is overwhelming, though, is the orgy of cordiality which brings things to a close, with all fighting talk erased and apparent betrayals of friendship overturned. While you can't accuse the novel of displaying insufficient boldness, fluency or exuberance, you might, with justice, question its sharpness or discrimination. It doesn't lack a kind of rumbustious appeal - but, as with all clubs and coteries, this appeal is ultimately limited.

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