Prods in the right direction

EUREKA STREET by Robert McLiam Wilson Secker pounds 15.99
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The Independent Culture
A third of the way into this novel comes the puzzling exchange: " `Guess who I saw today? ... Ripley Bogle.' `Who?' asked Chuckie. `A guy we were all at school with ... he was some kind of tramp or something but he went away to England. Cambridge I think ... Smart guy.' `A tosspot,' said Septic." Bogle has been seen begging near Belfast City Hall, reciting Mallarme for 50p a go. The in-joke refers to Wilson's debut novel, the story of a lad who, like Wilson himself, was born in Northern Ireland, studied at Cambridge, then dropped out to live rough in London.

When I interviewed Wilson several years ago he described his work-in- progress, then titled OTG, as a "Belfast Ulysses", and although he immediately retracted the boast, it's a tempting clue to his intentions here. Not that he has much interest in formal experimentation, but there's a relish and precision in this portrait of a city and its topography, plotted out in improbably ironic streetnames (apart from the titular Eureka, there are streets called Bosnia, Democracy, Damascus, Hope and Palestine). And, just as in Ulysses, love gets the last word.

Jake lives on Poetry Street, a hard man and a debt-collector, but much too sensitive to pursue this career far into the narrative. His stalled life of regrets for a lost girlfriend and the griefs he has visited on the poor collides with the puffed-up comic tale of his friend Chuckie Lurgan, a fat Prod who becomes unstoppably rich, first by a mail-order scam (no one wants to cash cheques with "Giant Dildo Refund" stamped on them), then by ludicrous ventures into Irish haute cuisine and tourist whimsy.

There is nothing so effortful as a plot, although Jake, with the help of a foul-mouthed urchin, attempts to discover who is painting "OTG" in foot-high letters and winding up the IRA, UDA and all the other triple- lettered entities in the Province. Jake, a Catholic, admires this unknown, impartial graffitist, echoing these guerrilla antics with his own swingeing attacks on all sides in the Northern Irish debate. His narrative pokes savage fun at the "Just Us" party and its leadership; at modern Irish poetry as evinced by opportunist nationalist poet Shague Ghinthoss; at Protestant hard men and their ugly moustaches; at the unpronouceability of Gaelic names like Aoirghe which "sounded like a cough to me". He even mocks the Republican slogan Tiocfaidh ar La ("Our day will come"). The "Just Us" party is led by a bearded "duplicitous Nazi" called Jimmy Eve, easily trounced in a TV interview by the bumptious Chuckie. Much of this is wonderfully funny but, alas, the likes of Gerry Adams are a lot less ridiculous and more sinister than this lurching comic scenario allows.

In the final pages, Jake, preoccupied as ever with his love-life, stumbles into a riot. He is surprised to find that it has been caused by the early release of a squaddie who shot dead two joyriders. "The IRA themselves routinely shot young folk who stole cars and were always campaigning vigorously that all their imprisoned members who had murdered and maimed people should be released. Everyone seemed to have a very shaky grasp on jurisprudence these days." Wilson is evidently on the side of the angels, even if he doesn't always write like one.