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BOOK REVIEW / Tragic exile in Ireland: A goat's song - Dermot Healy: Harvill pounds 14.99

A PENINSULA is an island hedging its bets, a place of uncertainty, given neither to land nor sea. Certainly, stretched from the westernmost hem of wild coast in Europe, Ireland's Mullet Peninsula seems well cast as the twilight abode of this ambivalent tragedy.

Dermot Healy's novel prompts us to ask whose tragedy it is. Whose is the legacy of misfortune, the fate of banishment into a corner of the mind where imagination becomes its own enemy?

Jonathan Adams, a retired RUC man, and father of actresses Sara and Catherine, is a candidate for the role. He is haunted by the memory of one heated moment in Derry, when he and others beat civil rights marchers back to their ghetto. In the end he has surrendered to a life of ignominy and shame, moving from the North to the Mullet coast, an improbable exile.

Jack Ferris too finds terra non grata wherever he goes. It's his inner condition. His wheel of fortune grinds and grumbles, oiled by the drink. In and out of hospital for the cure, on and off the fishing boats, tossing down pints, stomping through ceilidhs, Jack has a restless, seeking personality. Courting the Adams girls, he flirts with the strange exotica of Protestant allure, something mysterious, glinting, beckoning.

Perhaps these women ignite his imaginings. Jack is a playwright, plotting his life in scenes of despair and disaffection. He is the existentialist boyo, three decades too late to make the big time as a literary hero - but with iron in his soul to match the booze that swills through his veins. Healy gives us chunks of Ferris's first-person prose, which provide the percussion that underscores the book's sense of barely articulated threat.

The novel's quest for a spark is fulfilled in Ferris's love affair with Catherine, which is crafted with wonderful stealth. By using both the first and the third person, Healy is able to give an added ironic edge both to the pain of their parting and to Ferris's hunt for conciliation. The couple travel across Ireland following Catherine's studies in Belfast, to Dublin where Catherine is acting in Ferris's play, and along the capillary roads of the West. Healy catches the pitch, the angles of voices, and evokes the several Irelands of the mind.

It is in its scope that A Goat's Song is most impressive. Healy interweaves a not quite documentary verisimilitude of landscape with the taut strands of the novel's strident, yet cloistered, romance. His portrayal of the myths of Belfast and the West coast pierces through the stereotypes, while helping us to see clearly the justification for their existence.

Jonathan Adams sits in the narrative like an island, or perhaps like a peninsula. Healy could have paid this character more attention, though, for his is the history of Ulster's recent past and impending future. He tends to get lost in A Goat's Song, a loss which in lesser novels might stop the narrative in its tracks. Here it encourages readerly gluttony. For this wonderful celebration and lament creates its own hunger, its own momentum.