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Book: Sweeney erect

The Salesman by Joseph O'Connor Secker & Warburg, pounds 9.99
Jack-of-all-genres, Joseph O'Connor is back like Janus. The Salesman is outward-seeing and inward-dwelling, facing the past and the future. Sometimes, ambition overloads it with too much detail; the prose becomes sluggish and the narrative spins out of kilter. The novel's hero is Billy Sweeney, satellite-dish salesman, confronting a tortuous version of the familar mid-life cri de coeur. He is the key to the dark comic schema: a 1990s version of his namesake, the medieval Irish hero of Buile Suibhne, whose purgatorial adventures are the subject of Seamus Heaney's Sweeney Astray.

O'Connor relishes this update, naming his hero's house in Dalkey after Glenn Bolcain, where ancient Sweeney was scourged into madness. Echoes ripple as names summon up a gallery of ghosts from the old Irish text.

At first, The Salesman transcends this grim association, taking off in Billy's monotone to describe its own grim rampage of events. Billy's daughter lies in a coma, while the men who beat her senseless go on trial. But one of them scarpers. Billy swears he will find and murder the man, Donal Quinn, and the narrative follows his quest as Quinn is stalked and imprisoned in Sweeney's aviary. This curse-and-revenge adventure moves from bitter reality into a nightmare-scape that blends fantasy with sheer implausibility as the modern Sweeney tale becomes, ironically, the prisoner of the mythical Buile Suibhne.

Intercutting these shenanigans is the novel's true achievement: the recreation of Billy's domestic existence, focused on Seanie, best friend who becomes a priest, and Grace his sweetheart, with whom he enjoys a fierce and heady love affair during the Sixties. This evokes the odour of lust and courtship: Dublin, The Beatles, and life for the taking, yet awaiting a comeuppance.

The novel tastes that wind of change, the coming "shadow of the North" as bombs explode and hope melts in Billy's marriage. Unlike the entanglement with Quinn, Billy's home life gets to the visceral reality. For the novel's comedy and true horror are rooted there. Billy's deepest motive for telling his tale is his need in the chasm of loneliness to hear an answering voice, a proof of existence: I remember, therefore I am.

The novel's endgame, a double-captivity at Glen Bolcain, fails to captivate. But, like Billy, the reader remembers; and for the novel's earlier passages, its lyrical, dangerous highs, it is worth the dip.