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BOOK REVIEW / FICTION

The Bitter Taste of Loneliness

WAITING FOR THE HEALER by Eamonn Sweeney, Picador USA, $23, 320 pages

March 02, 1998|JONATHAN LEVI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

'Waiting for the Healer" is one big mess of a book. Dubliner Eamonn Sweeney has packed styles and stories into this hodgepodge of a first novel like a publican pouring the dregs of last call into a pint glass. But that ain't all bad.

Paul Kelly, the owner of the King William pub in Brixton, South London, is a working-class hero, a no-nonsense guy with the heart of a dog and the philosophy of a secondhand-book store owner. The death of his beloved wife, Lydia, has left him to raise his 4-year-old daughter, Kaya, with the tender help of a New Zealand girlfriend and a sensitive bartender who recognize Paul's need to drink himself into forgetfulness every night.

But the murder of Paul's kid brother, Johnny, in Ireland sobers Paul up long enough for him to pack a bag and take himself and Kaya back to his tribal homeland of Rathbawn. It's a blasted geography he returns to, defined by its council estates and its pubs, an eighth circle of boarded-up houses, carving knives and a shuffling queue of swollen-nosed men, trembling before opening time, waiting for the healer, that first drink that will make bearable the endless passage through the day.

It's a town of long memories, of football rivalries and gang connections. Paul himself is from the Diamond: "Thirty-five houses knocked up in a fierce hurry a mile outside the town for the people who came out of the workhouse in the Twenties. . . .

"Once upon a time the men there sent their wives into the town to tempt farmers with what used to be called in porno novels the delicate lotus flower of sex but was hardly that. No one from the country ever went near the Diamond any more. A good hammering and the loss of a day's money lives on in the folk memory."

Among the denizens of the Diamond is Bumper Reilly, a brute of a man who, just for fun, pits his young sons in a bare-knuckles fight, the winner getting "a pound coin and there's no dinner for the loser." Bumper's brother has also been murdered, and Bumper persuades Paul to help search for the culprit.

Leaving Kaya with his mum, Paul ventures with Bumper on a quest for an all-purpose Grail that will avenge Johnny's murder, make sense of Lydia's death and assuage Paul's thirsty soul. The journey takes them through playing fields of broken glass and adultery, gypsies and black pudding, reckless mayhem and intricately planned psychopathia.

At times, "Waiting for the Healer" reads like a thriller in the "Mona Lisa"-"The Long Good Friday" vein. At other moments, the narrative wanders into the maudlin territory of soap bubbles and cardboard sentiments ("Love never brought me back. Hate would now."). There's a heady interlude when Paul argues politics with a drug kingpin in the Hot 'n' Kickin' Ribshack ("Our Waitresses Pinch Back"). Even Paul's dreams shove their balled-up fists into the story in a workmanlike attempt to prove that he has a soul.

None of these styles sets up the next. Plots and characters are left in puddles on the bar for the rats to lick up after closing. And yet there is something irresistible about the mess. Sweeney paints his landscape with the eye of a constable and the ear of a thief. And if the mixture doesn't go down as smooth as Guinness, it still leaves a thirst for more.

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