BOOK REVIEW / Straying into a dark, ugly and sick world: On the Back of a Swallow, Danny Morrison; Mercier Press, pounds 7.99

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'I 'VE strayed into a dark, ugly, violent and sick world,' thinks Nicky, the hero of Danny Morrison's new novel, 'How did I get here? How do I get out?' The man whom Mr Morrison and his IRA chums kidnapped and interrogated a few years ago, thus ultimately landing themselves as guests of Her Majesty, must have asked himself the same question. However, Nicky is referring to prison, where he is on remand, wrongly suspected of buggering a 15-year-old boy.

Nicky's heart was broken in childhood by the death of his beloved friend, Robin, and he had not found happiness again until - in his early twenties - he met Gareth. After unsatisfactory heterosexual encounters, Nicky has realised his true sexual orientation but, though both he and Gareth long to consummate their love, he is too noble to go through with it. They both fall victim to the prejudice of a bigoted society.

Why review such a mawkish novel, you may ask? Because Mr Morrison is a very important man - the coiner of the term 'the Armalite in one hand and the ballot box in another' and a key figure in the republican world.

Like Gerry Adams, he is a lot smarter as a republican strategist than as a writer, yet both have a compulsion to acquire a literary reputation. That fine novelist John Banville recently remarked that it behoved those dealing with Adams to read his short stories, which exhibited 'the streak of sentimentality that marks the totalitarian mind'. As in his previous novel, Morrison exhibits the same characteristic, though in his case it is complemented by a sordid eye and a staggeringly pretentious use of language.

Here are some examples. Forgive me for quoting rather than criticising, but why should I have to suffer alone?

'Ugly little crescents of a milky substance, like the bitter juice from a dandelion stem, stood in the canthi of his eyes.'

'You're my mate; you are very special. And I love ya.'

'His mother cried and whimpered, catching her breath, and through the gaps in her thin teeth and receded gums came little bubbles and a dribbled string of saliva.'

'They stood back-to-back, their heads turned, looking in the mirror, and as their wet skins kissed Nicky experienced a gorgeous frisson.'

'The older part was conspicuous by its splendid tombs . . . The black of their inscriptions had long been eaten out, making identification impossible, the way the worms reduce to any anonymous skull the distinct features, the once brilliant eyes and fleshy face, of an individual.'

'. . . an island of happiness surrounded on all sides by a cruel, unforgiving world.'

'On the surface of Nicky's skin every follicle horripilated with the burning frost of Gerard's ugly remarks.'

'His real heart was broken, its ichor in tumult'

'Madeline darted her rasping tongue into Nicky's mouth. It was long and pointed, cold for a tongue and extremely wet.'

'Through the mask of her sex the smell was densely concentrated: the taste, slightly repellent . . . She tilted her head back and moaned, and her eyes suddenly opened to reveal no pupils, just their frightening whites.'

And the piece de resistance:

'He was woken early by borborygmus as his insides fermented and his intestines ballooned with gas beyond their capacity . . . He begged the guard to let him out but even before he heard the refusal he felt his bowels exploding. He whipped down his trousers and underpants and a pail of diarrhoea went splashing across the cell floor and up the walls.'

Nice, eh? Horripilating follicles: an ichor in tumult