Books: Country matters and city slickers

Carol Rumens on the Irish rural dream and urban nightmare; The Detainees by Sean Hughes, Simon & Schuster, pounds 12.99 Four Letters of Love by Niall Williams, Picador, pounds 12.99
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Not about political prisoners (unless in a highly symbolic sense), The Detainees may be the first Southern Irish contribution to a genre whose UK practitioners include Irvine Welsh, James Kelman, Martin Amis and Will Self. (Self, in fact, makes a cameo appearance in Hughes's novel.) Some might argue Roddie Doyle got there first. But there's no decent working- class in the true "urban nightmare" novel, unless for strictly satirical purposes. The protagonists are either filthy rich or just plain filthy.

Hughes's hero, John Palmer, has made his fortune from antiques and trendy kitsch. He's almost likeable, as such heroes often are, being fashioned to hint subtly that the author they represent is really a sensitive soul brutalised by a publisher's five-figure advance, but otherwise human. Palmer loves animals, and vomits at the sight of vomit. He supports Arsenal United (sic) and loves rock music, a passion documented by Hughes with tender, knowledgeable relish.

Though frequently coked-up, and terminally angst-ridden (his suicide is signalled on page 7 by meta-narrator Dominic, so I'm not giving anything away), Palmer operates effectively in the real world. When Alan "Red" Bulger comes back to Dublin from, apparently, making good in Boston, Palmer lightens up slightly on the substance abuse and begins plotting the ex- bully's downfall. Brutalist aficionados should be warned that this process is charted without scenes of gut-churning sadism.

Despite frequent raids on the urban gothic stock room, Hughes manages to make something genuine of this, his first novel. While the revenge plot isn't startling, and the thriller elements negligible, the strength of his characterisation reveals the novelist's essential talent for observing the human animal and recording its noises. The sex scenes, especially the near-rape of zomboid Michelle, are intelligently done.

Though a stand-up comic when not writing novels, Hughes resists the urge to reel off jokes. His style is remarkably unstrained, and no one, characters or readers, gets patronised. Sometimes it all seems like Ordinary Decent Realism (but don't tell him).

Niall Williams can also do ODR. He could probably even write as well about sex as Hughes does if he tried. Williams, however, is mostly interested in Love.

The convincing parts of Four Letters of Love tell the story of the child- narrator and his father, William, a Sunday painter who suddenly feels himself called to the art full time, with devastating results for his wife and son. All this is beautifully done, and the Isabel and Peadar courtship story at times compares well with it.

Niall Williams loses his grip on his material, I think, when he ventures into the realms ofthe miraculous. This leads him into stylistic excesses and, ultimately, to simplify away his own plot with manoeuvres that are less magic realism than romantic fictionalism, Mills & Boon with a Celtic twist.

Between them, these two first novels more or less cover the current range of literary fiction. Do they suggest that the contemporary experience in the Republic of Ireland can be slotted into similarly obvious poles? As those brochures with the postmodern shamrock might say, an hour or two away from Dublin, and we step back into another century.

Well, perhaps. Hughes's Dubliners and Williams's West-coast islanders are poles apart, and perhaps it's a pole too many. Is someone, somewhere writing the novel in which they meet?