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Chilly waters run shallow

THE COVE SHIVERING CLUB by Michael Curtin Fourth Estate pounds 8.99
For the boys who pass the initiation test of swimming across an Irish bay on Good Friday 1955, joining the Cove Shivering Club is a step closer to manhood. The Club has two rules: no women and no pissing in the water. Years later, its members reunite to save the cove from losing its men-only status at a forthcoming presidential election.

Michael Curtin's fifth "comic novel" is the story of this fight, narrated by the Club's most mediocre member, Junior Nash. A novelist now living in London, Nash is co-opted by Dessie Dennison, the lordly fixer who is leading the no-women campaign. While Nash scurries round at Dessie's bidding, elaborately fixing votes, we quickly realise that the outcome of the election is not the point. What matters is the sense of mission, the joys of scheming, the camaraderie, the crack.

The book is most interesting in its depiction of the economy that exists between these men, with its delicate balance of childhood loyalty and professional expedience. Dessie is the affluent one, owning a string of pubs in London as well as holiday homes near the cove. He is manipulative and generous in equal measure. Nash spends much of his time rescuing Dunstan Tucker from financial ruin. Tucker has been obsessed with cheating money out of banks since his father was humiliated by the refusal of a loan.

These men are of the "first generation of our class who could take a secondary education for granted and the last for whom a secondary education would be enough ... The last to receive religious instruction ... the first to lose the faith almost en masse". Such promising tensions remain undeveloped in a novel which, under the guise of being funny, is lazily superficial.

Curtin indulges Nash in opportunities to display his dull logic and dull wit. The seediest kind of pub bore, Nash makes clumsy swipes at Europe, gays, smoking bans, modern art, and above all "the seditious shite that has birds not knowing what to think or how to behave any more ..." A posturing gallant, he glories in his own slobbery and sexual frustration. His offensiveness is not in itself a problem; mean-minded anti-heroes can be used to comic or tragic effect - but they have to be interesting, and Nash is not.

Nash lets other people take the risk of having a life. He has a vicarious interest in Dunstan's marriage and family, but he ventures nothing of himself in dramas which he then recounts as if he had played a central part. Beside him, the inscrutable Dessie and the volatile Dunstan retain some interest. There is also Harry Lamb, an eccentric impresario who lives with his mother and gets acts like Baptista and the Blessed Virgins into Dessie's pubs in return for his vote. Otherwise Curtin dishes up the standard caricatures of silent heavy, talkative barman and mad monk.

For biting Irish comedy try Flann O'Brien; for a passionate account of swimming, read Charles Sprawson's Haunts of the Black Masseur. The Cove Shivering Club suggests it will offer something of both but delivers little of either.