Fiddling while home burns

FATHER MUSIC by Dermot Bolger Flamingo pounds 16.99
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The Independent Culture
IN DERMOT BOLGER's London, the skies are always dead with rain clouds. Tracey Evans, his heroine, is drifting away her twenties beneath a ceiling of spidery cracks. She leaves her flat to temp or go dancing. She has friends who don't come round. Tracey is Irish, but she doesn't feel it, except as a reason not to fit the damp city, teeming with "lone men with Sunday supplements". She sleeps with strangers to avoid talking.

One of them is Luke Duggan. It starts as usual: at the bar, with a challenge that becomes flirting, and, within an hour, a cold grapple in a hotel across the road. Luke has grey hair, likes his wife to dye hers blonde, and says he sells bathroom tiles. He wants to see Tracey again. She stands him up the first time; when the second rendezvous crawls around, she can bear her ceiling cracks no longer. This time the balance changes: Luke, it transpires, is a Dublin gangster.

Up to this point, Bolger's thriller clanks along. His writing has a distracted quality, loose with cliche - "something about him intrigued me" - and lumpy with Tracey's rather obvious thoughts about exile. So set are the opening pages on London's melancholy that its other, fevered side is unconvincingly absent. Tracey lives in an Islington without traffic jams, drinking bankers or even a pirate radio station. And all the while Ireland glimmers, arcadian and ideal, on the book's horizon. Tracey's estranged father is a fiddler from Donegal, long disappeared into the dark green hills. When Luke asks her to come to Dublin she agrees, despite the hard young men she is beginning to notice around him, in the hope that a family quest will be possible. For some reason Tracey has never thought of this before.

Dublin takes over the book, but thankfully, Bolger leaves his romantic notions behind in Customs. The first thing Tracey notices about her homeland is the unfinished mess of roads wrapping the capital like a badly tied knot; the second, a scatter of gypsies, picking over the abandoned cars between the bypasses. Luke takes her to the Duggan residence, where his money-laundering family - Dublin's new suburban royalty - play at Dallas and The Godfather. Any outlaw glamour rubs quickly away amid the grasping arguments and ivory armchairs.

Luke's empire is besieged. As the national boom swells the economy, both legitimate and otherwise, the old tricks of tobacco- smuggling are being squeezed out by newer, more heavily-guarded cargoes. "You're nobody in Dublin without a trigger," notes Bolger as he arranges the assassinations of Luke's lieutenants. The picture of Tracey's father grows less sentimental too: the legendary fiddler was once a postman with a fondness for Norman Wisdom. There remains a bagginess to the chapters, though. Tracey goes clubbing and drug-taking in Dublin with a young minder appointed by Luke, but the language cannot convey the night, nor make much of the overlap between her pleasure and her lover's diversifying business. Luke's wife is relegated to crowd scenes.

The end comes, as signposted, in Donegal. Tracey and Luke flee west together for their different reasons, bound by lust and a testy mutual fascination. Their families turn out to share memories of the same empty country places: "swarms of insects beneath the trees", "the feel of sand walked into patterned lino". When Bolger writes like this, stringing small precise visions into dreams of sentences, he justifies his lapses into Emerald Isle soft-focus. Gunmen and detectives track the lovers to their bolthole, but fiddles and spiritual fulfilments soak the last pages like local rain. Although here, of course, it hardly ever falls.