Belfast's History of Terror, Murder : An unblinking tale of a human monster who trades in death : RESURRECTION MAN, By Eoin McNamee (Picador USA: $21.95; 240 pp.)

Pinckney Benedict's novel, "Dogs of God," won the 1995 Steinbeck Award in the United Kingdom. He teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Princeton University

"Resurrection man" was, in centuries past, the slang name for a particularly nasty breed of fellow who dug up corpses from the graveyard or procured them in other, even less appealing ways--murder--to provide medical students with cadavers to study.

The Resurrection Man at the heart of Eoin McNamee's remarkable first novel is of a different sort, though certainly no less nasty: As a killer for the Protestant cause in 1970s Belfast, young Victor Kelly (he of the unfortunately Catholic-sounding name) doesn't take bodies out of their graves; he puts them in.

The Belfast of the novel is a terrifying place of stabbings and snipers, where the punishment for unadvisedly crossing some ill-defined line between Taig (Catholic) and Prod (Protestant) territory is death. A place where men of the wrong religious persuasion are taken from their homes and transported, uncomplaining, almost companionable with their executioners, to their horrific ends. A place where untimely death is so commonplace that only murders of a spectacularly grisly sort--the sort that Victor Kelly is so well able to administer with his steady, talented hands--make the looked-for political statement, strike the proper symbolic note, stir the complacent populace to terror and revulsion (the Catholics) or smiles and outright adulation (the Protestants).

This Belfast is a city whose atmosphere is as toxic and corrosive as that of some uninhabitable alien planet.

Victor's foil is Ryan, the reporter who follows the exploits of the Resurrection Man and who senses, without ever really understanding, their symbolic importance, the direct correlation between the increasing madness of the violence and accelerating disintegration of the world around him. Drawn into the vortex of astonishing mayhem that Victor creates, Ryan begins a series of sexual liaisons with Heather, Victor's girlfriend, and makes himself vulnerable to McClure, Victor's sometime friend and counselor, an underworld power broker with shady connections to the government and police. Although Ryan never encounters Victor in the flesh, and for most of the book only suspects his existence, they are bound together by circumstance, the eternally observed and the eternal observer.

Ryan has as his mentor a reporter named Coppinger. Stricken with incurable cancer, Coppinger pares his life, and his reporting of the exploits of the factional killers, down to the barest essentials. A description of his "precise and factual" news reports might well serve as a description of the novel itself: "There was something frightening about them. They read as if they had been stripped down and ordered according to an unimaginable necessity. They had the dry powdery feel of bones dried in the sun."

One gets the sense that Coppinger, given the chance to end the bloodshed, would nonetheless allow it to continue.

Around Victor swarm a number of memorably loathsome characters: crack-brained Willie Lambe; who wanted only to be a doctor but who becomes a surgeon of a very different sort; Big Ivan, who discovers that he likes the celebrity to be found in a courtroom, even as a defendant, and stolid Biffo, who communicates his understanding of Victor's mission by squeezing Victor's hand hard enough to break it.

In a world that reveres nothing, apparently, so much as raw sentimentality (witness the success of such thoroughly saccharine books as Robert James Wallers' "The Bridges of Madison County"), McNamee has set himself a difficult task. He has chosen to depict, utterly without sentimentality, without pathos or self-indulgence, a human monster, a taker of lives who has as his excuse not even the thin veil of sectarian belief that animates many of those around him.

Victor Kelly kills because he likes being feared, because he likes seeing his exploits on the nightly news, because he is good at it, the best, a true artist with the gun, the knife, the cut-throat razor. With his invention of Victor, McNamee has managed to create a work that ranks along with Cormac McCathy's "Child of God" and Graham Greene's "This Gun for Hire" as one of our best and most unblinking studies of amoral criminality.

If the book itself is unsentimental, written in a spare, clean language that nonetheless makes ample room for luminous figurative language, its characters are not. They exhibit fatalism, and fatalism is a kind of sentimentality: the notion that the universe cares enough to hold in store some ineluctable destiny peculiar to possessors of "the bitter knowledge that they will soon find themselves lost in the untenanted houses of the dead," those who understand that any decision, any action or inaction, no matter how innocent or unpremeditated, can easily produce deadly consequences. Go to the pub on the wrong night: You're dead. Hesitate a moment in declaring your religious allegiances: You're dead.

Death is the only punishment here, the only consequence. The people of the book are given to drunken rages, lethal jealousies, tearful betrayals, long and unforgivable lapses in judgment, relapses into loves better left forgotten.

Even the Resurrection Man is not immune to the disease of sentiment. He likes cartoons, the classic Warner Bros. Roadrunner and Coyote ones best of all, because the Roadrunner, crafty, merciless, always gets the best of the hapless Coyote.

He loves movies too, Westerns ("He had a sense of dusty main streets, the clink of spurs. Going to the pictures he had learned respect for the Western showdown") and especially old gangster movies.

He is also a sucker for his mother, "referr[ing] to her in sentimental terms and send[ing] her cards with pink hearts."

Dillinger had the Woman in Red; in her company, his predilection for the movies proved fatal. Just so, Victor Kelly has his mother, and his filial devotion to her proves just as lethal. Even as he dies, gunned down in the street at the direction of one who befriended him, he can imagine that he inhabits the last reel of a film: "Victor knew the moves. Struggle to raise the gun. Clutch the breast and lean forward in anguish. No last rueful gangster smile, goodby world."

"Resurrection Man" is an uncommonly fine book, and an uncommonly serious one. That attribute alone is probably enough to damn it in most people's eyes. What is worse, it's a book that, in the steely excellence of its prose, gives no quarter and asks none. One could not desire a more carefully honed narrative in a first novel, or a second, or a third.

Eoin McNamee is a very young writer (he was something like 14 years old at the time of the events depicted in the novel), but he commands the apparently easy confidence, the insight into humanity, the resolute craftsmanship of one who might be much older. In "Resurrection Man," he has brought his considerable talent to bear on an unyielding subject, and his efforts have borne wild, bloody and thoroughly wonderful fruit.

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