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Things fall apart

THE DEAD SCHOOL Patrick McCabe Picador pounds 14.99
Laurence Sterne believed the novel is like a conversation, a series of propositions and disclosures that invite agreement, questioning and denial. Patrick McCabe clearly believes this too; but in his case, the conversation is so militantly one-sided as to render the reader speechless. No modern author offers a fictional voice so slangily verbose, so buttonholingly in-your-face.

In The Butcher Boy, his Booker-shortlisted third novel, the narrator was a swaggering, pig-obsessed social reject called Francie Brady, who wreaked havoc with an Anglo-Irish family while telling his story through a farrago of minatory cliches. In The Dead School, a scornful but emotionally null observer describes two blighted lives in similar tones, veering between an off-and-away, sunny enthusiasm, and a colder, grimmer note that seems to invite tragedy, the two strains combining to form a kind of hearty heartlessness.

The story concerns two men, Raphael Bell and Malachy Dudgeon, born a generation apart in a changing Ireland, who suffer emotional tragedies in their childhoods, survive them to grow up sane and fulfilled, then gradually destroy each other. For Raphael, a child of the Troubles who sees his father shot by the Black and Tans, the engine of destruction is his passion for the past - for an idealised Ireland of old decencies, in which his father wins the reaping race, the IRA have principles about whom they kill, and sex is a pure and wholesome union for the procreation of children. In the Seventies, sagacious and heroic, he runs the most successful school in Dublin. But the times are a-changing and he is harried by free-thinkers. The new parents' committee rep talks of "non-competitive sport", and publicly argues in favour of abortion. A radio disc jockey called Terry Krash encourages discussions of underwear and promiscuity. It's typical of McCabe's mastery of idiom that you believe an ageing teacher might feel his world begin to crumble when he hears the word "bra" uttered on the airwaves.

Malachy is, by contrast, a feckless dreamer, his chronic inadequacy fuelled on "You-talkin'-to-me?" lines from Hollywood movies. He is abused by local toughs, he witnesses his mother having illicit sex in a boathouse, his father drowns. Unlike Raphael, he embraces the age of Aquarius, becomes a hippy, falls in love with a groovy chick and gets a job at Raphael's school.

There, as the older man fights off the modern world, Malachy fights the demons of his childhood, the ones that suggest he will naturally be "the biggest bollocks in town" like his dead, betrayed father. One of the book's many narrative shocks is to discover that the youths who drive the frenzied new recruit to homicidal dreams are just small children. A boy in his care falls into a pond and drowns. The beleaguered headmaster attacks a pupil. Forced into resignation, Raphael opens the Dead School at his home, its rooms full of empty bottles, stolen schoolbooks and maggoty pets. Malachy, sacked, hits a London squat, takes acid on a picnic and is admitted to a mental asylum where the past crowds in. . .

As things fall apart, correspondences emerge. Both men are mother-fixated, suspect their partners of betrayal, and signal their descent into insanity by a leery chuckling. Both associate love with a song, for Raphael "Macushla", for Malachy "Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep". By the end, they set out to kill one another, but only one dies. It's as if, though 40 years apart, they are driven along the same trajectory by a malevolent fate - though McCabe offers nothing as concrete as a deterministic philosophy.

The story moves along in tiny, two-page chapterettes, driven by an explosive, hyper-adrenalinated hectoring, full of for-God's-sake rationalisings and strikings of attitude. The narrator calls his characters names ("Mr Extremely Bruised Bubblehead"), laughs at their pretensions ("I mean just what was going on or who in the hell did Malachy think he was now, JackNicholson?") and describes their downfall with repellent glee. You may flinch at the piling-on of nostalgia and misery. But you can't ignore the bleak poetry of Patrick McCabe's claustrophobic modern Ireland where there are cobwebs in Our Lady's eyes, and the news is always bad. Flann O'Brien meets The Mayor of Casterbridge. A nasty triumph.