The Stornoway Way is an entropic tale of energies sparked to life and quenched by landscape, language and culture. It is also a novel of consistently hilarious verbal invention. Robert is 30, an intermittent artist and ex-busker who has fled the island and failed to find the life he dreamt of. Returned, he lives as if nothing has altered. He and his contemporaries - ex-lover Eilidh, the faded beauty Karen and lost souls like Joe Idea and Jimmy the Tongue from Tong - spiral boozily about the memory of hopes past.
Even in adolescence, Stornoway (he assumes the name of his home town, but "R Stornoway" is also "arse-torn-away") was nostalgic: for his childhood and some legendary future modelled on black-and-white films. The island is afflicted with the same "failure of personality": there is nothing to do but drink, trade unlikely anecdotes and watch with horror the nameless perversion performed by the fireside by Dead Geoff.
Stornoway lurches between mock-Joycean registers: from a desperate desire for poetry and human warmth to the three-page-long recital of the countries that might, but for geographical accident, have been Scotland's neighbours. He essays elaborate footnotes, glosses his regular forays into Gaelic ("the language of Eden and infighting") and turns perfect comic phrases ("a fine doorful of a woman").
But as MacNeil's framing narrative and authorial interventions remind us, R Stornoway, for all his comic élan (on his own dancing: "no word of a lie, people on fire move better than me") is also a man "with a powerful urge to drink himself underground". In the end, he sinks beneath his own ocean.
Brian Dillon's 'In the Dark Room' is published next month by Penguin IrelandReuse content