When 26-year-old Denny Cullen’s mother dies suddenly, he returns from Wales to his Dublin home to help bury her and mourn her loss. That trip launches first-time novelist Trevor Byrne’s energetic and winning tale.

To say that Denny is down on his luck is an understatement. He’s living in the family home with his lesbian sister and her lover, but his brother, who owns the house, is about to evict them. Unemployed and forced to live on the dole, he’s barely able to scrape together 200 euros to buy a car from another brother who’s been using it as a chicken coop. Denny hangs out with mates like Maggit, who steals a PlayStation for his son’s sixth birthday present, and Pajo, who’s abandoned Catholicism to explore Buddhist practice and conducts a hilarious séance that’s interrupted by the voice of Simon Cowell blaring from the television in another room.

Despite their scruffy existence, there’s a sense in which Denny and his friends feel like searchers, not slackers. Most are teetering on a precipice of self-destruction, and despite their more than occasional stumbles, Byrne makes us feel they’re doing their best to resist that fatal pull. Like a skilled Irish bard (and to leaven the grimness of his characters’ impoverished circumstances), Byrne summons up gypsies, ghosts and banshees who add mystery and a whiff of transcendence to his raucous, heartfelt story.

For readers offended by profanity and drug use, fair warning that both are plentiful in this novel. Yet to soften those elements would have been to deal falsely with the tribe of puzzling and sometimes infuriating characters who swirl in a giddy dance through Denny’s days. Byrne admirably captures their ethos and the language they use to express it, and if their actions aren’t always praiseworthy, there’s a truth in the telling that makes Ghosts & Lightning both engaging and memorable. For all their flaws, it’s likely you’ll find yourself rooting for Denny and his pals to find their footing, despairing all the while that they’ll do so anytime soon.

Harvey Freedenberg writes from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

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