Novel of the week

Sudden Times

Dermot Healy <em>Harvill, 342pp, £15.99</em>

ISBN 1860466729

A group of friends are sitting at closing time in an unfamiliar Victorian pub in London's East End. The landlord locks the doors, a signal to customers that he doesn't intend to allow a legal trifle to prevent late-night extras. A few minutes later there is an eruption. By the bar, the landlord is slumped on the carpet clutching his face. Blood is everywhere. A powerfully built man stands over him. The landlady appears in a doorway and says: "Please don't hurt him." The hard man glares at her, then stares at the figure on the floor. He then walks slowly behind the bar, open the till, stuffs wedges of cash into his pockets and, to the horror and amazement of those present, he finishes his drink. He then leaves the pub. No one speaks. No one calls the police.

This true story took place a few years ago but it could be a scene from Dermot Healy's outstanding new novel. Those who saw it unfold knew that a curtain had been drawn back and that they had glimpsed a terrifying parallel universe governed by different rules. Some physicists now think that the entire cosmos comprises millions of such universes and have coined the term "multiverse" to describe these spaces that co-exist but are subject to alternative laws.

Ollie Ewing, the naive young Irishman who narrates Sudden Times, straddles some particularly dark and dissimilar multiverses: small-town Ireland and metropolitan England; the legitimate world of construction work and its underbelly of protection rackets and drug-dealing; and the fuzzy borders between reason and faith, sanity and madness. When we first meet him he is bereft, spending his days circling, but unable to settle on, an enigmatic core that burns within him. As the novel unfolds, we discover something of the terrible murders that brought him to this state, although because we see the book's action through his eyes, we can never be entirely sure of its truth.

Ollie is a remarkable creation: a voyeur and mental doodler with a minute sensitivity to the weight and fabric of stuff. His life is organised around systems and routines that seem designed to prevent him from catching sight of himself while his restless, paranoid intelligence animates tins of peas as effortlessly as it spins puns and piss-takes. Innocuous ideas that he encounters early in the book are seeded in his mind and germinate later, flowering into new thoughts and plots. But something is awry. People in town hint at past sins and "auld personality problems".

Slowly the reasons for Ollie's guilt become clearer. In one virtuoso sequence, he visits his father in Birmingham, and we are cast into yet another multiverse, this one inhabited by a tribe of alcoholic Irishmen, without money, women or country. We follow these battered exiles on an epic perambulation around a Birmingham that Healy describes with a blazing sense of place and time and with a Joycean alertness to the textures of sound, sight and smell.

In Sudden Times, Dermot Healy's words sit like smooth pebbles in a clear, fast- flowing stream. But their solidity is deceptive. Thoughts and speeches, dreams and waking episodes, fantasies and actions glide almost imperceptibly into each other. His book is compelling. Its ambition and fidelity to its characters, its poetic undecidability and its moral and psychological reach establish it firmly as literature of the highest order.

Healy's cityscapes may owe something to Joyce's Dublin, but Ollie Ewing is more reminiscent of a Beckett creation. Beckett, in his Trilogy, has Malone thinking casually about abducting a young girl "for company". Ollie, too, is capable of administering similar shocks. Yet Sudden Times has an abundance of plot, including a court room scene that throws into doubt much of what we thought we knew. It has, too, the timeless quality of a revenge tragedy, with Ollie cast in the role of tortured avenger. As soon as I finished the book I started it again. It was even better the second time.