BOOK REIVEW / Bringing home the body: 'Desperadoes' - Joseph O'Connor: Flamingo, 14.99

THE SEARCH for someone or something irredeemably lost is one of the most compelling and resonant ideas in literature. Desperadoes by Joseph O'Connor takes up this theme of the quest and relocates it in blighted contemporary Nicaragua. A divorced Irish couple, Frank and Eleanor Little, meet up in Managua to bring home the body of their murdered son, Johnny. But the body in the mortuary is not his. Convinced that he's still alive, and encouraged by reports that he might be hiding in the north-east of the country, they set off to find him.

A wild, dreaming youth, Johnny originally fled to Nicaragua to escape a Dublin life of grim struggle and sadness. It emerges that he played in a rock band, Los Desperadoes, whose other members, rather improbably, agree to accompany Eleanor and Frank on their long journey.

But the introduction of the band, with their preposterous names and desperately unfunny eccentricities, is a mistake. Rather than providing the spark to light the novel's fuse, their presence all but extinguishes it. And what, in the shadow of war, could have been a powerful meditation on loss, obsession and personal disintegration, quickly degenerates into an unenchanting adventure story, with the usual mix of drug- smuggling, gun-running and easy sentimentality.

The book's real failings, however, are stylistic. The dialogue, which, curiously, has been praised for its fizzing diversity, in fact has a bland uniformity, and every character uses the same limited vocabulary. The novel has no internal borders. When Frank writes to his girlfriend in Ireland, or the grieving Eleanor apostrophizes her dead daughter, we are not moved by what they have to say. They all speak with the voice of the narrator; their language is O'Connor's language - flat, loose, utterly without presence.

Nicaragua, this ravaged yet radiant land, is not animated. The prose, with its journalistic flourishes, crumbles under the weight of ready-made formulation and cliche: people are 'as white as milk'; smoke rises in 'plumes'; minutes 'pass like hours'.

Too eager to describe all that he sees and hears, as a narrator O'Connor has not yet learned to discriminate. He has too much material; the novel is feverishly overburdened with plots. Perhaps he should remember what H G Wells once said of Joseph Conrad: 'He has still to learn the great half of his art, the art of leaving things unwritten.'