Book review / Roll over, young Holden

Name The Baby by Mark Cirino Phoenix House pounds l5.99

Leonia, the 21-year-old narrator's girlfriend, has committed suicide by putting a bullet through her head in the bathroom of their New York apartment. The action takes place a month later over the course of three days, in which the narrator goes on a whisky bender through clubs and streets of Manhattan, then by bus to North Jersey, home to his family - dog, Clamor; teenage sister; tactless, loving mother; and immigrant Italian father - which he considers retreat. Certainly he's trying to work through what's happened, but this is not a book about clear answers. The narrator's unreliability is certified. Information he forgets to tell us includes, until the very last paragraph, his name.

Cirino pays homage to The Catcher in the Rye, and, as with Salinger's novel, much of Name the Baby's power lies in its narrative voice: colloquial, lyrical, brutal. On kissing a woman during his whisky bender he says, "I hoped the whole time that she was tasting the Trident [chewing gum] and not the puke, I mean that's my idea of urban chivalry."

The character, a skinny Blues harmonica player, hates "fakes", and, most of all, himself. "Me, I've got some kind of permanent scowl attached to my forehead like a birthmark." He can be cruel. One of his digs at Leonia while she was alive was that she'd proof-read a suicide note. But we ache for him. Even seeing is a struggle for him. On the dance-floor, "the strobes from the ceiling are wrestling with the precious metals around her neck." Cirino draws us so deep inside the narrator's head, we feel not just sympathy but empathy; yet we're also pushed away. Much of the book is addressed to "you", which challenges the reader's position as voyeur.

The style seems rambling, but Name the Baby is tightly structured. Recurrent motifs - an Amtrak train, a cemetery's headless statue of Christ - are used sparingly to potent effect. Although key revelations are foreshadowed, they still steal up on you. The author's inconsistency with his tenses is evocative of his narrator's need both to come to terms with the past whilst putting it behind him so he can go forwards.

The book's ending is ambivalent. There is hope. But the narrator picks up a copy of Ishiguro's Remains of the Day, which suggests he might have lived his most promising years already. Mark Cirino is only 26. This is a horrifyingly mature and beautiful debut.

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