In his promising first, Irish writer Roper, at home in the land of Joyce and Beckett, follows a broken protagonist as he lurches from Dublin to Manhattan and back again, searching to know himself and to connect with his world, efforts thwarted by his own deep anger and ennui.
The narrator’s two-year journey goes some distance before he's identified as “Stephen.” Stephen may as well remain nameless, hollow as he is after the harrowing death of his sister by cancer at 19. Alienated from his father, from the Church, and from his mother, who abandoned her family, Stephen finds momentary comfort with Ursula, a freelance writer, whom he marries. The couple’s closeness ebbs as they bicker over the restoration of a house in a squalid corner of Dublin, sharply drawn by Roper. When Ursula disappears, Stephen flees to Manhattan, where, in scenes of dark satire, he begins an affair with Holfy, a photographer 15 years his senior. During a moment of graphically depicted sadomasochistic sex, Holfy socks Stephen in the face. He socks back, and his life seems to stir. But outside of the bedroom, Stephen (and the reader) must contend with Holfy’s gassy pronunciamentos on art: “Never be accused of writing a smooth sentence,” she advises him (a brickbat no one could hurl at Roper, his prose ever tensile). Indeed, art preoccupies Stephen, yet he distrusts it. After failing to capture a sense of his sister’s illness on paper, he muses that “The only difference between poets and prostitutes is that poets work for less money.” He returns to Dublin for a final break with Ursula and a clenched, failed attempt to make a reconciliation with his mother. Headed home on a ferry, he makes a final, vivid gesture that, while perhaps ambiguous, probably portends ill.
Sometimes ponderous, more often unsettling, Roper’s literate narrative transforms the universal quest for love and wisdom into a singular tale of anguish.