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Irish-born Hughes (The Detainees, not reviewed), a well-known comic in Great Britain, tells of an unpleasant young man who uncovers his family's darkest secrets after his father's suicide.

With a name strikingly similar to the author's, Shea Hickson delivers a first-person narrative that veers from viciousness to sentimentality. A loner and a self-proclaimed cynic, Shea lives a singularly unproductive existence—unless you consider occasional forays into petty terrorism productive. Since his younger brother Orwell, a successful journalist, has stolen his one true love, he makes do with occasional sex on one-night stands, most recently with a hairdresser whom Shea has the misfortune to get pregnant. When he starts to read his late father's diary, he is shaken to realize that his parents' lives were not all they seemed. At the same time, the mysterious would-be terrorist "Robin Hood" entangles him more and more deeply in his schemes. In following Shea, the story attempts to blend elements of hip black comedy, crime mystery, and psychological study, but Hughes never quite finds the right balance. He's worked out the details of the mystery plot meticulously, every apparent red herring eventually explained, but there is little sense of suspense. The jokes, which tend toward the obscene and trendy, including an unfortunate reference to Robert Downey Jr., don't travel well across the Atlantic, and readers may tire of Shea's never-ending paeans to the joy of fellatio. As a character who's being studied, Shea grows, if not likable, at least less despicable, but other family members remain cardboard cutouts. And Shea learns the details of his parents' history, though not much about their hearts and souls, while ultimately, as so often happens with fiction based on the "the big secret," the revelation itself is a let-down, too weak to carry the weight of the reputation preceding it.

A blend of mystery, lacerating comedy, and psychology that never quite jells.

Pub Date: March 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-7432-0159-0
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Scribner
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15th, 2001