3.5 out of 5: In this debut novel by Irish music journalist Peter Murphy, John Devine faces the typical problems of a teenager, including awkward moments with women, experiments in substance abuse, evasion of parental controls, and a complicated friendship (complete with an opportunity for betrayal). But beneath the surface of this conventional bildungsroman, John’s story is refreshingly unique thanks to powerful supporting roles played by several eccentric characters from the small Irish town in which John lives, including John’s chain-smoking, Bible-quoting, mysteriously ill, single mother, his Rimbaud-obsessed friend, and a chocolate-addicted busybody who won’t move out of the house until John threatens to shoot her with a crossbow.
Adding to this odd brew, John suffers from cryptic and unsettling dreams involving a God-like figure who takes the form of a giant black crow (described as "omnipotent but impotent") and including haunting end-of-the-world scenes like this one:
Two blokes wearing billabong hats carry a cross improvised from railroad girders to the shore and lay it flat on the sand. A third man in a too-tight suit lies across it, his comb-over unwinding like a turban in the sea wind. They nail him through the wrists and ankles and raise it up. He hangs like a side of beef, bawling his head off, but they haven't planted the cross deep enough and it tilts slowly forward and hits the wet sand, the sounds of his torment muffled, mouth clogged up with silt.This excerpt is a nice example of how Murphy’s prose, by turns coarse and poetic, creates beautiful and haunting images out of ugly things and inelegant words. Over the course of 300 pages, the effect is quite stunning.
Counteracting this novel’s brilliance is a fundamental infirmity of structure, primarily arising out of too many loose ends and a protagonist who’s less well-drawn than the supporting characters. Some of the book’s most distinctive elements—John’s unsettling dreams or his friend’s short stories—drift through the story like flotsam, untethered to the rest of the action and thus lacking in impact. Murphy is undoubtedly gifted as a novelist, but John the Revelator could use some structural refinement. I expect great things from this author in the future.