BOOKS:No place like home

SONGDOGS by Colum McCann Phoenix House pounds 15.99
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The Independent Culture
AN Irishman in his early twenties comes home to see his old Dad in Mayo and hangs around for a few days. Nothing much is said. Dad goes fly-fishing. Son cleans the floor. Dad goes fishing again. Son goes to the shops on a bike, and has quite an adventure ("It wasn't easy to balance with all the heavy bags, and I had to retrieve a packet of biscuits that slipped out when I grazed against a lamppost. Goldgrain, his favourite. I think they've changed the packet though, and I almost overlooked them in the shop.") The reader who reaches this point in Colum McCann's first novel will probably decide it is safe to loosen his or her hold on his or her hat. It's a novel with the breathless, madcap pace of a overladen bicycle on an Irish country lane, going uphill.

To be fair, the narrator's load is of a decent weight: Songdogs is a book about family memory, family history, feelings of being home and being away from home. And although there is little sense of urgency, the book seems to know its destination. The title refers to a Navajo Indian creation myth: coyotes - songdogs - are said to have howled the world into existence (there was nothing, then a Big Howl of some sort, then the Universe). And Songdogs is the story of Conor's unhurried, almost unconscious, investigation into his own creation myth: the stories his parents told him, the photographs he's seen.

Through flashbacks we learn that Conor's mother was (or is) Mexican; his father, the "old man", Irish, and a photographer. They met shortly before the Second World War, in Mexico, and they married, and travelled in the United States. The old man could not settle, and eventually brought his wife back to Ireland, where to locals she was an exotic, unhappy sight. She finally lost patience with unkept promises of a return to her birthplace, and she disappeared. Conor left home soon afterwards in a teenage strop. When he arrives in Mayo at the start of this book, carrying a big backpack and a slight American accent, he has been away for five years himself, and has spent much of that time vaguely retracing his parents' footsteps, vaguely looking for his mother, testing what he was told. Now, he and his ailing father try to get along for a while - try to find a way of not letting the past close in on the plodding present.

Sad to say, until we know a bit about the past, the book's present - Dad farting and checking out his piles and pissing in the sink - is indeed pretty plodding. By the end of Songdogs, we can read meaning into the silences between father and son - there's something moving, if a bit film- corny, about all that gruff, troubled non-verbal communication - but until the middle of the book, those silences are just silences. Then there's a bit of a flashback; and more fishing; a slightly gauche bit of historical scene-setting; a favourite anecdote shoe-horned in. It's like reading a short story that has too many words in it. (McCann's first collection of stories, Fishing the Sloe-Black River, was published last year.)

McCann's style does him few favours. The narrator is overkeen to make a distinction between his stock of family knowledge - his inheritance - and the stuff he is just making a stab at. So he is forever describing what characters might have thought or done, for all he knows. As his grandmother gives birth, for example, exploding purple flowers "might have made her think of bombs erupting in far-off Flanders." Or might not. And every couple of sentences there's a piece of decoration in which the author seems to have gone to some trouble to find exactly the wrong word. This may be the ignorance of my English ear (McCann is Irish, and lives in New York), but there seems to be something odd about "scones privileged with spoonfuls of clotted cream" or "a leapfrog of skyscrapers". And it's an unhappy coincidence that while a character who keeps chickens is "not unlike an old chicken himself", another character, five pages on, close to a tea kettle, is "not unlike a tea kettle herself." You feel this could get out of hand: saucepans, sheep, telephones.

But although slow to arrive - when all hopes of a car chase, or even a chat, have long faded - the book has charms, in a dry, underfurnished, rather gloomy way. At one point, Conor seems to sum it all up: "Sorry," he says, "I was miles away."