The First Verse
Barry McCrea
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Buy *The First Verse* by Barry McCrea

The First Verse

Barry McCrea
Carroll & Graf
320 pages
May 2005
rated 4 of 5 possible stars
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When Niall Lenihan obtains a prestigious scholarship to study at the respectable Trinity College in Dublin, he is absolutely delighted. From the suburbs, bored with the constraints of his unhurried life, Niall is looking forward to the temptations of the big city, at last able to leave his parents and his innocent childhood behind. Dublin, now a thriving hub of gay life, holds such promise, exhilaration, and fun for the young Niall.

Niall falls in love with the ambience of the sacred halls of Trinity College, and he is well aware that the lights of the big city are now on his doorstep, the streets teeming with erotic possibilities. Seduced by the potential for easy sex and "the flashing lights, and smell of aftershave, the smell of male sweat and Smirnoff Ice," Niall gets caught up in the gay scene, cruising for guys and drinking in the city's various pubs, hotels, and nightclubs.

He makes some good friends, including the bubbly Fionnuala with her warm sense of companionship, and manages to reconnect with his best friend, Patrick. Niall also finds romance with Chris, a good-looking Northerner, who charms with his clipped friendly accent and kindly ways. But Niall is most attracted to enigmatic and mysterious Sarah and John.

Niall is particularly drawn to John, part sexual attraction and part curiosity at the cloistered world that he shares with Sarah. Both John and Sarah seek guidance from the pages of literature, letting the signs and symbols, the sentences from books, determine their actions in life.

They resentfully let Niall participate in a type of candlelit sťance where they adopt a strange world of "sortes" and "synchronicities," repeating sections of books as a mantra again and again. Niall treats it all as a kind of drunken party game, but soon he is plagued by odd coincidences: a strange man who knows his name sings songs at his window, and words of the song keep turning up everywhere he looks.

A strange energy is connecting Niall in some way with energy of another world, a world he cannot readily see, the world in all writing and art. The synchronicities have opened a channel, a fissure where one "world" can flow into another, two mutually exclusive universes held in the balance.

As fits of melancholy become more debilitating, and Niall fanatically pulls the endless threads of meaning from tiny fragments of prose, a frequent sense of doom fills him. Soon he is spinning fiction - lying to Chris, then to his psychiatrist when he fails his first year of study. He wants to shake the sinister hold that Sarah and John have over him, but the thought of continually connecting to this spiritual world is just too enticing for him.

With intellectual grandeur and psychological adroitness, author Barry McCrea has spun an unusual tale of self-discovery. Niall tries to build up a complete picture of the world, but his efforts to do so put him in danger of alienating those who are the closest to him. Written with layers of metaphor and meaning, and packed with Irish cultural references, The First Verse is a totally trenchant and forceful study of one young man's efforts to "make an old world slowly bleed into a new one."

McCea's characters are hip, vibrant and youthful, on the cusp of societal achievement, but they are also conflicted and tortured by this sinister world they have unwittingly discovered. A book lover's delight, The First Verse is a darkly ironic tribute to the world of literature and also to the insular world of academia. Before he realizes it, Niall is plunged into a shadowy world, forced to live in a profoundly isolated nucleus, an utter disconnection from the outside world that he has been so familiar with.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2006

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