The boy who fell to earth


Crowe, the narrator of Mike McCormack's first novel, is 20 years old as he recounts the story, "but I am already an old man. In fact I am a very old man and like all old men I am dying. And though I am dying from any number of things I am dying mainly because I have a bad heart." But if it wasn't his heart "it would be something else, some other foolishness which did for me".

The novel arrives at this drastic state of affairs in strict chronological fashion. Crowe tells us that he was born in a small village in the west of Ireland and reared since birth by his grandfather. From infancy his hair was "a black lustrous cap which glowed blue in a certain light against my pale skin". He also begins to grow very long nails and to develop an itch in his shoulder blades. He lacks a name, however, until one day a crow falls out of the sky and hits him on the head, so he decides to call himself Crowe.

He attends a rat-infested school where the teacher asks him "Crowe, are you different to the rest of us? Is there a different law for you and the rest of the world?" School ended, he decides to go to college in an unnamed city, where he meets a graduate student called Maria Callas Monk. They embark on a passionate sexual relationship and debate the nature of love.

However, Maria is depressed by her inability to repay a college grant, so Crowe earns the necessary money by volunteering as a guinea pig in a cardiological research institute. He gives the money to Maria but won't tell her how he came by it. She reacts furiously and tells him to leave, so Crowe goes binge-drinking in the local Harbour Pub.

He tries to recuperate in his home village and then returns to the city, where he is reunited with Maria. However, he has become extremely fatigued, perhaps by the tests in the research institute, so he goes to his doctor, who tells him he has contracted a rare and acute ageing disorder. He tells Maria about the diagnosis. They remain together and as the book ends he's in bed dying, with Maria asleep beside him.

That's about it in simple story terms, and it's in these terms that Mike McCormack's novel works best. Indeed, the heart of the book, the relationship between Crowe and Maria, is very well told, with convincing insights into the dynamics of a love affair that is both intense and very volatile.

But the author obviously means us to read other things into his story. We're told that the bird that gave Crowe his name "fell out of the sky like myself", and when we consider that the village he comes from is called Furnace, we immediately think "Ah, Icarus." (The jacket illustrator obviously had the same thought, depicting a bare-chested young man with wings sprouting out of him).

Indeed, right from the start we're encouraged to believe that there's something other-worldly about the main character, some mysterious quality that's immediately recognised by the grandfather who insists on taking over his upbringing. But we never get a sense of what this quality might be, or how it's of any relevance to the basic story.

As for Crowe's uncomprehending parents, who aren't mentioned again after the third page, they "were powerless in the face of my grandfather - I was his and that was that". Well, that shouldn't be that, unless we're persuaded of the inevitability of the situation, which we're not. And what's with the long nails and the itch?

Perhaps this reviewer is missing something. The dust jacket blurb describes the book as "an eerie and treacherous meditation on the nature of storytelling" rather than as an intriguing story unable to sustain the weight of whatever other resonances the author is trying to graft on to it. Perhaps the blurb is right.

John Boland is an Irish Times columnist