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Book Review

A U.S.-Loving Irishman Comes Full Circle to Embrace His Roots

A SORT OF HOMECOMING, by Robert Cremins, W.W. Norton, $13.95, 304 pages

May 04, 2000|LIESL SCHILLINGER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In New York or Los Angeles, if you want to be cool, you've got to wear Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana, know who Wim Wenders is, listen to the Velvet Underground and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, get invited to the right parties and be breezily conversant in drug nicknames. To anyone who watches MTV, this may seem obvious; what is less obvious is that the same things that signify cool here do so also in London, Dublin, Edinburgh, Paris and Berlin--and that for a self-respecting 20-ish European, going on a tear in Manhattan or Venice Beach is as necessary a rite of passage as losing one's virginity. There is only one approved brand of cool anymore, and its label reads "Made in the USA." This, at least, is what Tomas Iremonger, the deluded hero of Robert Cremins' funny and sharp first novel, "A Sort of Homecoming," seems to think.

Iremonger is such a prime specimen of blooming Gen-X Irish manhood that his emblematic face--which he conceitedly admires for its "flawless post-adolescent skin, sky-high cheekbones, young-god jaw, guilt-free eyes"--has been plastered across Ireland on a poster for the I.D.A.--the Industrial Development Authority, advertising "Ireland's Greatest Resource," young men like himself. But Iremonger resents his Irish origins and loathes the "heart-sinking familiarity" of his countrymen's faces.

As soon as his grandfather dies and leaves him some money, he buys a ticket from the Diaspora travel agency and exports himself across the ocean on an "anti-odyssey" of self-reinvention, intending to murder the pious, U2-loving leprechaun within. But when he returns to Dublin at Christmas, his Irish face confronts him in the I.D.A. poster by the baggage carousel--unchanged after six months and more familiar to his countrymen than to himself.

Iremonger's journey is a postmodern lit-crit student's fantasy. In his quest to remake himself abroad, he hoards every foreign talismanic name he can, hoping to use them as flints to spark charisma back home. But somehow, when he strikes them, they don't make the Irish peat catch fire. No matter how often he drops "Chelsea Hotel," "Tompkins Square Park," "Leonard Cohen" and "Andy Warhol," they don't lend their hot magic to the "Shelbourne Hotel," "Kells Cream Liqueur" or "Romy Dorgan, the Wall Street arbitrageur from Mayo." Iremonger stubbornly persists in arraying himself in transatlantic trappings. His Louis Vuitton suitcase with its stylin' Armani, Ralph Lauren and Hugo Boss threads was stolen in Vegas, but he still carries his fake half-Yank accent, his Gucci wallet, his Paul Smith socks and an $850 leather jacket from the West Village, which he calls "Nico" with precious swagger.

Posing and preening, knowing everything but that he knows nothing, Iremonger spends his holiday shunning his family and pretending not to notice that his old Dublin friends are shunning him. An ex-flame, Mainie Doyle, blows him off, and he ends up shaking a can for charity in a public square just to kill time, taking solace in the fact that his well-known face draws large donations. It is not until an ex-friend from Trinity beats him up and steals Nico that it dawns on Iremonger that nobody is impressed with him and, worse, that nobody even likes him. His scornful Dublin acquaintance suddenly acquires new allure. Iremonger had thought he was too cool for his country, but by the middle of Christmas vacation, even he begins to figure out that the reverse is true; Ireland is too cool for him. He finds himself longing for his missionary Uncle Columb (from the Latin for "dove") to rescue him and begins succumbing to the attractions of home, though he would never give his family the satisfaction of letting them know. When the time comes to leave Dublin, he suddenly finds he can't.

Critics in England have hailed Cremins as a new Martin Amis--the most coveted comparison that exists for Young Writers With Attitude across the Atlantic. Cremins' authorial control--his jazzy, sharp word riffs, his precise observation and his dark humor--mirror Amis', but he leaves out the ice kernel of misanthropy that lies at the heart of Amis' cold art; there is a soft center under the satisfyingly hard candy crunch of this book.

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