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First Fiction

KNICK KNACK PADDY WHACK; By Ardal O'Hanlon; Henry Holt: 244 pp., $23

REAP; By Eric Rickstad; Viking: 264 pp., $23.95

THE CHIVALRY OF CRIME; By Desmond Barry; Little, Brown: 474 pp., $24.95

March 12, 2000|MARK ROZZO

It's tempting to think of Ardal O'Hanlon's raucous debut--set in the still-sooty, pre-Euro Dublin of the early '80s--as Roddy Doyle lite. But even if, like Doyle's work, "Knick Knack Paddy Whack" cruises along with a slurry brogue, makes caustic asides about the Irishness of the Irish and showcases young heroes who appreciate a refreshing vomit behind the pub, it doesn't quite have Doyle's schoolmaster-like precision and control. Even so, O'Hanlon, who appeared on the popular British comedy series "Father Ted," has written a novel that projects its lines like a highly caffeinated actor doing high wire improv, and its conclusions are unsparingly--and unexpectedly--brutal.

It's narrated by Patrick Scully, a determinedly unpretentious 19-year-old who has landed a dead-end job as a security guard in a Dublin jewelry store while his best friend from back home, charismatic Balls O'Reilly, embarks on a university career. When Patrick isn't out carousing with Balls, pilfering odds and ends from work or dodging his terrifying mother, he's weighing the pros and cons of Francesca Kelly, a cute, bookish classmate of Balls'. In glimpses of Francesca's diary, we learn just how woefully inadequate Patrick is at courtship and just about everything else, even as Patrick's feelings for Francesca--and the world--escalate from indifference to infatuation to jealous rage. As the downwardly mobile Patrick edges closer to full-on loutishness, O'Hanlon toys with our ability to maintain sympathy for this troubled loser who, on the verge of desperation, confesses that his very dignity has become an "untamed bucking horse that threw me to the ground and bolted."

REAP; By Eric Rickstad; Viking: 264 pp., $23.95

Jessup Burke, the 16-year-old hero of Eric Rickstad's first novel, is a moony kid who falls asleep reading Field and Stream magazine and dreams of journeying to places like "Argentina and New Zealand, where the world's most magnificent and dogged brown trout finned." But Jessup, who spends his days tooling around on an untrustworthy bicycle and writing letters to his out-of-state sweetheart, has never ventured out of Vermont's Northeast Kingdom, an idyllic demesne of thick woods and babbling streams that, over the course of one waning summer, comes to look more and more like a prison. Jessup's guilelessness gets him mixed up with the darker side of this back country when Reg Cumber, a redneck ex-con with enough troubles to sustain his own social agency, gives Jessup a lift in his battered El Camino. Reg offers Jessup warm beer and odd jobs for extra cash and, as their lives become unexpectedly entwined, Jessup finds that Reg is a marijuana grower (hence the book's title) with no shortage of scary acquaintances and dangerous schemes. But, for Jessup, what might be most perilous of all is the desire he begins to feel for Marigold, Reg's younger--and unhappily married--sister.

Through shifting narrative perspectives, Rickstad builds a complex (if occasionally convoluted) portrait of a group of people whose interlocking fates snap into place with gruesome repercussions and of a boy who unwittingly stumbles into adulthood like a bird dog into a wolf trap.

THE CHIVALRY OF CRIME; By Desmond Barry; Little, Brown: 474 pp., $24.95

"I never wanted to, God knows, but I ended up killing that son of a bitch," says Bob Ford of the event that forever attached his name to cowardice and legend: the 1882 shooting of celebrity outlaw and unreconstructed Confederate Jesse James. He's talking to Joshua Beynon, a not very sharp kid who lives in a rough-and-tumble Colorado mining town where, 10 years after bringing down Jesse James, Ford--along with his prostitute wife--has come to set up a tent saloon. Joshua unwittingly becomes the third shootist in this story about the vicious circularity of revenge. After acquiring a Colt .45 that he long coveted from Frazee's store (where he's put to mundane tasks like unloading pickle barrels), Joshua went home and accidentally shot his father to death. While this terrified inadvertent gunslinger cools his heels in a jail cell, Mr. Ford relates the savage history of Jesse James, argues that, as James' assassin, he's not really the "dirty little coward" of popular imagination and helps set up Joshua's defense against murder charges.

Desmond Barry is a Welshman who grew up fascinated by the American West, and this blood-soaked and opium-tinged epic has the grimy poetic feel of a late-period screen Western a la "The Wild Bunch" or "McCabe and Mrs. Miller." If Barry's instinct for completeness occasionally slows the pace, he convincingly rescues Bob Ford from footnote status and asks some unsettling questions about the deceitfulness of courtroom justice versus the brute honesty of an eye for an eye.

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