BOOK REVIEW / A speedy life with bad brakes: Dixie Chicken - Frank Ronan: Sceptre pounds 9.99

THE golden hero of Frank Ronan's new novel dies on the first couple of pages with the same superficial style and drama that were the hallmarks of his short existence, roaring out of life at full speed in his blue sportscar:

'Rory Dixon's car came down the hill like a blue streak and sailed out over the cliffs in an arc of music. His stereo was playing that song by Little Feat, full blast. The song about Dixie chickens and Tennessee lambs. The black rocks at the foot of the cliff were pointed like church spires, slimy like plastic with the washing of the sea, and one of them skewered the car and held it aloft above the beating water.'

Certainly this is 'the sort of car that adolescents dream of'. But was his death an accident? Is his widow's cry of murder just another symptom of the general craziness that made people wonder why he put up with her for so long? Or was it she, finally, who put up with him? Some long-held certainties are shaken: was Rory as universally adored as all that? Is his whole entourage rotten with guilty knowledge?

Swiftly and uneasily his friends, colleagues and acquaintances start covering up their tracks. Even the local police seem less than innocent. There are suggestions of wheelings and dealings, drugs and orgies, possible involvement in paramilitary rackets. . . Rory's influential friends in the Department of Justice do all in their power to hush up any suspicion of foul play until a second death, unmistakably a gory murder, seems about to send the whole thing crashing down.

Dixie Chicken is less a thriller though than a savage, mocking comment on success, love, sex, religion and stylish living. All the little nastinesses; all the woundings and betrayals; all the little illusions people find to hide behind. Rory's parents are gurus, veterans of the sexual and philosophical revolution but, called back by his death from the shelter of ashram and adoring disciples, they come face to face with their own decrepitude, with the sad knowledge that they are now interchangeable with all the other old people: 'She realized now that there must come a time when age overrides the person, when old people stop being themselves and become the same as each other.'

Frank Ronan won the Irish Times / Aer Lingus award for his first novel, The Men Who Loved Evelyn Cotton. He is one of the new generation of young Irish writers, though it has been said of him that 'he's not Irish in any of the usual ways.' Dixie Chicken is set, rather perfunctorily, in places called Wexford and Dublin, but Ronan has little in common with Molly Keane, Roddy Doyle or anyone up and down the social and national scale in between. He is probably the nearest thing Ireland has to a Martin Amis. And indeed the Ireland we all thought we knew has lately been moving with the speed of Rory's car into Amis-land.

Or into Ronan-land. From that first startling death with the blasting stereo and the damaged brakes one is led compulsively, and often hilariously, through a landscape that includes incest, adolescent despair, drug abuse, suicide fixation, sex killers, corrupt politicians, repulsive old lechers, necrophiliacs, unfrocked priests, corpses dripping blood through the drawing room ceiling into guests' wine glasses - all this described with a sort of cold gusto.

It is necessarily detached, this gusto, because Ronan uses God as his narrator, and God has long since abdicated from any personal involvement with his creatures: 'If you think that the Nine O'Clock News has given you compassion fatigue, then think what these millenia of viewing have done for me.'

This narrator / God is, for most of the book, discreetly self-effacing. On the occasions when he does interrupt the narrative to make a pronouncement or judgement, he can be as ponderously embarrassing as any other god. And coy with it: 'It was the fact that he was born in a cowshed which first drew my attention. There was an echo from the birth of another great charmer in whom I was an interested party.'

One gets used to these little idiosyncrasies: God is, after all, just another character in the novel - I mean, he's not God, for heaven's sake. He watches over his admittedly unpleasant creations with little interest, observes their doings and tragedies and loves and perversions with boredom and occasional titillation. Rory Dixon, born to hippy parents in a converted cowshed, is an exception. Rory is the hero, the great lover, the golden boy, God's favourite in a cast of inadequate, twisted or wounded people (most of them wounded by Rory Dixon).

What was so special about the man? We're repeatedly told that he was beautiful, brilliant, charming, seductive, witty, but we're never actually treated to any great display of these attributes. Dixon and his entourage are curiously two-dimensional, like a collection of very good cardboard cut-outs. At first this looks like Frank Ronan's weakness; as I read on I realised it's his strength: to a distant and disillusioned Creator all humanity must appear to be lacking in a dimension or two. He prefers it like that.

'Do you think for one moment,' says the narrator, 'that if I had had any idea of the future, of this future, that I would have had any truck with the human race at all?' It is as if, after all those millenia watching catastrophes and camps and pogroms and massacres, Ronan's God, created in man's image, is really only turned on by a bit of style. Well, which did we find pleasanter viewing: Rwanda or Wimbledon? The message is that Rory Dixon had style, however superficial, and that's why he was one of the few creatures a late 20th century God could get any sort of a buzz out of.

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