Philip MacCann is an energetic and disconcertingly acerbic writer. A trenchant critic of Irish nationalism, he has written scathingly of the failure of many contemporary Irish writers to see beyond their own local identities and introverted anxieties. A Dubliner, he thinks Ireland's Celtic tradition tends away from individuality: "expression is more often that of race consciousness, at worst songful patriotism". So what of his own fictional debut?
Certainly, MacCann cannot be accused of provincialism. The individual stories that comprise The Miracle Shed may be set principally in shadowy, depressed areas of Dublin and Belfast, yet they are not about Ireland; geographical location is the least important thing about them. The Troubles are but a muffled echo, and this Irish earth is never shaken by an exploding bomb. Urban Ireland, with its monstrous high-rises and sprawling council estates, is simply the grimy backdrop to the characters' daily struggles. In "Love Marks", the change of location to London does not signal a change of theme: we could still be in Belfast or Dublin. For MacCann writes exclusively of the poor, the dispossessed and the chronically disturbed: people w ho know nothing but illness, futile striving, debauchery and self-abuse.
United in their common misery, these inner city lives transcend national boundaries: the wearied protagonists speak across the stories with one voice - how solemn and sorrowful it is; but also how human. MacCann constantly strives to find tenderness in suffering and harmony in extremity.
In "Grey Area", for instance, a pubescent boy is taken to a decaying high-rise where he is fondled gleefully by a cunning paedophile. They scarcely communicate, but as the boy ejaculates the man praises him, confessing his love for the boy, even though they have only just met. He lifts the boy and gently cuddles him. We are suddenly moved by the paedophile's plight, finding it within ourselves, in spite of ourselves, to pity him. Similarly, in "Harvester"- a remorselessly repetitive Samuel Beckett pastiche - we listen urgently to the intenal monologue of a disabled pensioner as he struggles to empty rubbish from his flat. The unnamed man is lugubrious and self-pitying; yet he is also capable of love, dreaming endlessly of the young woman who will soon visit the flat to comfort him. We know she will never arrive, but this does not stop us sharing the old man's febrile thoughts and sexual stirrings.
This is fine and powerful new writing. Yet the most impressive stories, such as "Tender" and "Naturally Strange", go further, employing sharp observation and exact dialogue to squeeze a grim humour from even the most hopeless situations. "Tender" is about two jobless pals who spend their afternoons swallowing gas for kicks. Surrounded by slums and begging children and sustained by gas-fuelled fantasies, they sink voluptuously into inertia, prompting the narrator to conclude: "This is where I belong, I t hink: in gas, outside of everything, in nowhere".
"Naturally Strange" is marvellously odd. A raging teenager, dreaming of sex, shares a bed with his pregnant mother in a cramped bedsit. Penniless and luckless, the woman longs for an abortion. She eventually visits a seedy back-street clinic, only to be attacked by a small dog. A scene of sombre suffering is transformed as the woman flees the clinic determined to keep her baby.
As with the stories of Will Self, it is possible to accuse MacCannn of pessimistically exaggerating life's potential for misery, and also of being obsessively preoccupied with deviance and obscenity. Equally, and more damagingly, one can accuse him of being a writer of only one tone: a furious morbidity. In anthologies his originality dazzles; read collectively the stories now seem to overlap and merge too easily, weakening the initial force of his nihilism. But MacCann is a writer with ambition and a sad, sinister style that ought to be widely known.