''Searing'', ''as fresh as an open wound', "it goes straight for the jugular'' are how Robert McLiam Wilson's first two novels, Ripley Bogle and Manfred's Pain were described. His third, Eureka Street, certainly has a strong thread of violence running through it - its Ulster setting, complete with bombings and beatings ensures this - but what is most striking about it is its absolute faith in romance. "All stories are love stories" we are told at the book's beginning, a surprising first line for a tale set in Belfast in the six months leading up to the ceasefire. Yet Wilson presents a Belfast where all aspects of life are heightened, all chances must be snatched, because if terrible things can happen without a moment's warning, then perhaps wonderful things can too.
Wilson's novel has two friends as heroes and the chapters take turns in telling their overlapping stories. Jake is Catholic, handsome, vicious and acutely sentimental. Recently separated from his girlfriend Sarah, he is desperate for love. The succession of barmaids, shop workers and waitresses that catch his eye move his hungry heart to such an extent that he immediately fancies himself in love with them.Yet he never quite gets anywhere with these women, at the last moment taking great offence at something they say or fail to say, pushing them away at the very point he wants them most. This sort of delicacy is quite at odds with Jake's day job as a repossesion man. Every day, he and his thuggish co-workers raid the grim estates of Belfast in the early morning when people's resistance is at its lowest.
Jake's fat and ugly protestant friend Chuckie Lurgan's life turns around when he meets a beautiful, rich American girl. Realising she's the kind of girl you need money for, he pulls off a huge mail-order dildo scam, invests the proceeds in even less reputable ventures and suddenly finds himself a rich man.
The book follows the progress of these two men and their small circle: foul-mouthed twelve year old Roche, Lurgan's mother who scandalises the whole of Belfast by taking up with the woman over the road; Septic Ted, Slat, Sloan and Lurgan's business partner who works his way through all the girls in Belfast.
Wilson is at his least effective when he abandons this easy-going anecdotal style for something more poetic, a kind of heightened language in which a voice, both knowing and striving for answers, addresses the reader directly about what Belfast is and what it means. Wilson is so good at showing us things, such a natural story teller, that when he comes straight out and states what he thinks, it sounds weak and unsubtle. But this is only a small complaint. Eureka Street is a clever and witty book by a writer whose real talent is an ability to combine blind optimism and complete despair with a remarkable ease, as if it were the most ordinary thing in the world to do so.