BOOK REVIEW / Winding alleys of Limerick: 'The Life and Times of a Teaboy' - Michael Collins; Phoenix House, 14.99

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MICHAEL Collins's first novel begins in an Irish border town in the years after the Second World War. Here in a grimy, rented yard, with the December twilight falling around them, a middle-aged man named Feeney and his teenage daughter stare anxiousiy at a pregnant cow. The impending delivery is a product of careful foresight: 'The calf would pay for Christmas'. But the animal is still-born. Covered in blood, reflecting on the price the knacker will pay for the carcass, Feeney calculates that the situation is not quite irretrievable: 'It wasn't a thing to ruin a Christmas'. Done in sharp, laconic fragments, the piece is densely evocative: the thin, alien quality of the Protestant town - the Feeneys are Limerick Catholics - the girls' terror and the cow's distress ('its hind legs far apart like a big woman in high heels') are impressively conveyed.

Unhappily nothing else in The Life And Times Of A Teaboy, which subsequently describes the erratic career of Feeney's son Ambrose, quite matches this early attack.

Introspective, mother-fixated, wary of his intense, preoccupied father, Ambrose 'a brooding schoolboy in black trousers' is clearly set on an incorrigible, downward path.

As well as fixing his destiny, these early years - a strange, burrowing life lived out beneath the rainy Limerick skies - also give the boy his nickname: from childhood Ambrose features as a devoted slave endlessly boiling the kettle for his mother, a religious obsessive languishing in the front room, and complicit with her in silent battles against the old man.

Each step in Ambrose's early life treads the perimeters of this tiny, run-down encampment, where he and his mother occupy 'the innermost sanctum of the roasting fire'. When he lands his first job, janitorial work in a local hotel, the object is to buy her presents. Unrealisable dreams of becoming an architect are swiftly jettisoned for a safe job in the Ministry of Fisheries, which involves manning a lighthouse on the coast. At first Ambrose welcomes the security, the cameraderie of his colleagues and the chance to subsidise his mother's benefactions. But the demons are gathering: illness and the news that his mother is spending his remittances on a brother's university fees, which Ambrose construes as betrayals, tip him firmly over the edge.

The rest of the novel is a decline - literally and figuratively. Shunted in and out of hospital, shaken up by electric shock therapy and damped down by pills, Ambrose eventually returns to the family home after his father's stroke, fearful that the place will be sold and his only chance of serenity drift away. The book ends with him back inside, attempting to write 'the sociological novel of his dreams' - in fact the life-story we have hitherto been reading - and patronised by the ghost of Samuel Beckett. Recent Irish history, never very subtly introduced before, now arrives in great clumps of exposition, and Ambrose's status as a kind of barometer of the national consciousness grows rather too laboured for comfort.

All this is a shame, for at his best Michael Collins is a considerable stylist. Writing about Ambrose and his cronies at the lighthouse, the winding alleys of Limerick, an odd incident in the hotel where the adolescent Ambrose sits quietly in the ladies' lavatory, terrified that someone will discover him - his prose has a thoughtful, sinewy quality, a kind of subliminal toughness of mind underlying the mundane ebb of the story. Even a state-of-the-nation lament put into the mouth of a bus-stop drunk works, because the man and his clotted diction are never quite extinguished by the history lesson below, and the reader is perpetually conscious of Ambrose's flustered, angry presence in the wings. By the end though, The Life And Times Of A Teaboy, has slightly outstayed its welcome.