I’m finally getting to a book that’s been on my list for a while, The First Verse by Barry McCrea. It was nominated for a Lammy back in 2005, but I imagine a lot of its readers don’t think it got as much attention as it deserves. Written in simple, hypnotically beautiful prose, it’s the strangely compelling story of Niall, a gay freshman at Trinity College in Dublin. A long passage towards the beginning of the book relates Niall’s initiation into the gay scene in Dublin—the bars, the men he sleeps with. Curiously, that shadowy underworld is slowly replaced by Niall’s admission into a literary cult devoted to the game of sortes, a form of divination which uses randomly selected passages from books, whose history stretches back to Roman times. Niall becomes addicted to the weird hallucinatory rites he performs with his begrudging cult-companions, his sex and social lives falling to the wayside. It has the compulsively readable feeling of a thriller, but is much more knowing and psychologically acute than a typical thriller. I hear rumors that McCrea is taking a year off of teaching (at my alma mater), and I hope it’s to work on his second novel.
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