In the Irish town of Mellick, about 15 years back, the patrons of the Nook (a pub) played a soccer match against those of a tonier sporting club, the Institute. Result? The Nook won. But now, a decade and a half later, the Institute wants a do-over--with a thousand quid a man as wager and the same sides as before (no substitutions). So it's up to Stanley Callaghan, an upstanding teacher in the town, who has always served as the Nook's moral exemplar, to field his team. (He's already put up his own money for the entire bet.) But Stanley's an odd leader: while the Institute team trains and jogs in anticipation of the match, Stanley decrees that the Nook players shall smoke and drink as usual, upholding a certain Irish virtue thereby. And the old Nook teammates are a motley crew: the grubbing Jake O'Dea; the pugilistic Stevie Mack; Bazook of the incredibly ugly mug but angelic voice; the simple-minded (now even institutionalized) Gabriel. Plus--all the way from America--Dara Holden, whose story is an especially fine set-piece here: now an actor on American TV (he plays a private-eye whose fillip is that he abhors smoking), Dara got his start with help from an American, Gary Cooper-type old actor named Bush Vine who once came through Mellick on vacation along with his young mistress Kate Flynn. (Data got Vine's patronage, and Dara's chum Stanley won the ripe-for-plucking Kate.) This whole flashback, in fact, has a special, witty, implausible beauty to it--which Curtin intensifies with his sharp, unsentimental style and an equable artistry that accepts the fact of totally dissimilar people being somehow in love with one another. And perhaps even more moving is the glimpse of Stevie Mack's life (and love) with his London landlady before being called back home for the replay. True, the soccer game itself, when it comes about, is a bit anti-climactic, with some black humor grafted on unsurely. But by then there's already been a wealth of reading pleasure--in the disorderly, knowing humor and unexpectedness of this novel's clarity, ethics, and sweet laughs.