THE GUARDS

By Ken Bruen

St. Martin's Minotaur. 291 pp. $23.95 Alcoholism is no laughing matter, so clearly I should be ashamed of myself for laughing my fool head off through much of Ken Bruen's pitch-black Irish comedy about a private detective who spends more time drinking than detecting. His name is Jack Taylor and he pursues the drinking life in Galway. Once he served in the Guards, Ireland's police force, but one cold night, fueled by too much brandy, he slugged a government big shot and it was time for a career change.

Because Taylor is a fan of American crime fiction, and because he wants work that will permit him to spend most of his time at Grogan's -- "the only pub that never barred me" -- he opts to become a freelance crime-solver. However, as he says, "There are no private eyes in Ireland. The Irish wouldn't wear it. The concept brushes perilously close to the hated 'informer.' " So he calls himself a "finder" and works just enough to pay his bar bill. A woman named Ann Henderson asks him to investigate the death of her 16-year-old daughter. Taylor takes the case and eventually finds out who killed the girl, but that is not what the book is about. The book is about drinking, its joys and sorrows, and the hard truths it sometimes conveys.

A typical chapter ends with this exchange between Jack and his best friend:

"Want to grab some grub or just get wrecked?"

"Wrecked sounds better."

"Barman!"

Inevitably, the next chapter begins: "Next day, I was dying. Not your run-of-the-mill hangover but the big enchilada. The one that roars -- SHOOT ME!"

The always quotable Taylor offers this snapshot of Grogan's: "Same old pub, the line of sad solid drinkers at the counter, chained to their pints by dreams no longer relevant." Taylor has thoughts on God: "There's God and there's the Irish version. This allows Him to be feckless. Not that He doesn't take an interest, but He couldn't be bothered." And on the dangers of drink: "I was still on the tequila. John Wayne used to say it hurt his back. Every time he drank it, he fell off his stool." And on his mother: "Odd moments, I have sought for her redeeming features. There are none."

Sometimes the comedy is lighthearted, as when Taylor, who is 45, asks a neighbor in her twenties for a date. She refuses, explaining: "Don't date drunkards." A few days later, after he changes a tire for her, she apologizes for her harsh words. Emboldened, he asks her out again, and she refuses again, because "You're too old." The punch line: "That evening, under darkness, I crept out, punctured her tyre again."

Comedy aside, Taylor's Galway is a dark, corrupt and violent place. He figures out that his former colleagues in the Guards are involved in the girl's death after two of them, off-duty, give him a serious beating and methodically stomp his fingers with their boots. His friend Sutton is a fellow "alky" with homicidal instincts. Taylor first meets his young friend Cathy, a junkie, when he sees her boyfriend beating her and tosses the fellow in a river. This exchange follows:

"I don't think he can swim."

"Who cares?"

"Not me."

It isn't clear whether the boyfriend sank or swam, but before the book is over, Taylor has definitely killed two men, one more or less by accident, the other with malice aforethought. Yet in the great Irish tradition, Taylor is not only a wild man but a lover of literature. He started with the Hardy Boys, advanced to Dickens and Wilde, and when he visits the dead girl's grave, he informs us, "She was buried in Rahoon Cemetery. Where Nora Barnacle's dead lover lies." Taylor, himself a most cautious lover, attempts romance with Ann Henderson, who is easily the sanest person in the novel. After their first night together, she leaves a note saying, "Dear Jack: You're a lovely man. Don't self-destruct on me. I couldn't bear it." But it is far from clear that Taylor would abandon the drinking life for the love of a good woman.

After one binge, Taylor wakes up in a mental hospital, where he undergoes two weeks of enforced sobriety. Once he is released, his effort to stay sober creates a great deal more suspense than the murder case that he and we have all but forgotten. But that's okay. There are a hundred writers who can entice us with their plots for every one with an original voice, and Bruen is an original, grimly hilarious and gloriously Irish. I await the further adventures of the incorrigible Jack Taylor.