The Fields—the first novel by Kevin Maher, a journalist originally from Dublin—stars Jim Finnegan, a 14-year-old with a potty mouth and a heart of tarnished silver. He hangs with a gang of toughs who swill lager and try to trump each other’s sexual conquests. Yet the lasses are no shrinking violets. Jim’s five (count ’em) sisters are as ominous as the witches in Macbeth.

During the course of this somewhat picaresque story, Jim faces some serious challenges, including the accidental pregnancy of his girlfriend, Saidhbh, and an unfortunate relationship with an abusive priest. Though Jim’s studies suffer, as does his relationship with Saidhbh, he endures these with incredible fortitude, and despite its sordid subject matter, The Fields is brimming with humor and cheer. This is particularly true of Jim’s outrageous family, whose determination to be joyful amid gloom—or gloomy amid joy—is integral to the Irish sensibility, as when Jim’s “mam” and her friends gleefully deplore lives cut short: “Cancer, death, only twenty! It’s music to their ears, like the sound of a starter gun.”

Maher’s prose has a manic, scabrous quality, like the ravings of a Guinness-fueled publican. He writes less like Joyce and more like CĂ©line. Indeed, the only reference to Joyce is when a character suggests that a companion volume to Dubliners could be called “Ireland’s a Bit Rubbish and Has No Jobs.”

It’s a small miracle whenever any adolescent survives, and Jim emerges with all his chakras intact (after another zany subplot involving New Age training in London). But one hopes for Jim what Larkin hoped for: “No God any more, or sweating in the dark / About hell and that, or having to hide / What you think of the priest.”

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