Radiohead and too much coddle

THE DETAINEES by Sean Hughes Simon & Schuster pounds 12.99

Ben Elton writes loud, galloping novels full of angst and entertainment; Stephen Fry is rather more urbane. Rob Newman sold gothic nonsense on the strength of his partnership with David Baddiel; Les Dawson is the patron saint of great-comics-turned-awful-novelists. So it is with some trepidation that we turn to the first novel of Sean Hughes, the Irish comedian who won the Perrier Award at Edinburgh in 1990 and made himself a star.

Hughes has always had pretensions - his poetry has been published and his new, darker, more adult comedy is presented under the title "Alibis For Living" - but this first novel is better than they might suggest. It concerns John, a successful antiques dealer with a big house in the countryside near Dublin, and an occasional drug habit, who is close to a break-down. So is his wife Michelle. They do not have sex, for reasons that are unclear at first, but are bound together by a mixture of mutual love and pity. Their relationship begins to unravel with the return to Ireland of Red, John's childhood tormentor. Red has come back in a hurry, with plans to open a sports shop in the town where all three of them grew up. He doesn't reckon on the local protection racketeers, the trauma of watching his mother die or the dangers of rekindling his relationship with Michelle, to whom he lost his virginity as a boy.

John (which is Sean's real name) has the same background, musical tastes, and moodswings revealed in comedy routines by his author, who is roughly the same age. Hughes could well answer to Michelle's description of John as "an introvert with a loud-hailer". He is good at showing the lifeless reality of growing up in a working-class home in a dead-end Irish town, and the mixture of relief and self-disgust experienced on a daily basis by those who don't emigrate, or who choose to return. His description of the family diet, from the dreaded "coddle" to casserole with too many carrots and a cheese roll for lunch every day leaves you in no doubt why John is not one for food.

He is one for music, however. Hughes name-checks countless bands, including Radiohead, the Wedding Present, the Fugees and Nick Cave. You would have to be an expert on indie pop for these cultural references to resonate, since Hughes makes no effort to describe the music for the uninitiated. Neither (and this is a more serious defect) does he tell us much about what his characters look like. We come to know their inner selves intimately, but the lack of convincing physical details means they may as well be spirits floating through the gloomy, rain-soaked Purgatory that is Hughes's Dublin.

With the exception of Jodie, the lost love of John's life, the women are all profoundly screwed up - from Michelle, lying in a drug haze all day, and the bewitching Tara, a porn model, to the two unnamed women barely present as they get casually fucked by drug dealers. (One has cocaine chopped out with a razor blade on her breasts, but does not react.) Red is appalled by his mother's slide into old age, mainly because of the loss of her beauty, and John's mother is poor, simple, docile and giving. The men are in deep trouble too, but at least they are not so terribly passive with it.

Loose ends are left dangling throughout, not least those concerning Dominic Richards, a writer of modern allegories pored over for meaning by John and Michelle in the way that other people read the Bible. Richards breaks into the narrative at the beginning to tell us that he is writing the story from John's diaries, but the subsequent prose gives no sign of that, and we never hear from him again. The Detainees is let down by Hughes' casual hold on the narrative and some very clumsy passages, but on the whole it works. Not a great book, but a sick, sad, troubled and troubling one, the first effort by a new voice with something grim to say.

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