The first several pages of this book had me nervous. It didn't start off particularly promisingly, I didn't feel. But once it found its rhythm and I found my place as observer of McCormick's 1980s Belfast, "Crawl" became impossible to put down. The book is dialog-heavy, which serves the story very well because the often clever (and profanity-laced) things that come out of the characters' mouths advance the story and provide the exposition better than stale narration could. Although when McCormick stops to narrate, it can lead to passages of exceptional beauty, such as his description early in the book of why a particular pub was shabby in the summer but cozy in the winter.
I must warn, however, that this is not a work of "literature"...it doesn't quite rise to that level of story-telling, though one senses in McCormick the kind of talent that will enable him to reach that level if he should so aim for it. And there are some false moves in the book. It is not without an agenda, for example. And I don't usually like propaganda fiction. In this case, the thesis seems to be not merely to demonstrate the awful wickedness that can be advanced in the name of faith (and of course Belfast of the 1980s is the perfect setting for such a thesis), but also to promote atheism. Now, I am an atheist and I'm all for promoting that worldview and have been calling out for a better class of atheist-themed fiction. But while McCormick gets it almost right, and the fact that the dialog is well-set-up and believable brings it nearly over the finish line, it still clunks a little.
This is perhaps partly due to my American ear. In this country at least, talk about religion is common enough that it needn't sound artificial. But any sustained discussion of atheism looks a little artificial, just because it's hard to find in nature. I hope that changes, and books like "Crawl" will no doubt help, but the conversations about atheism in the book still felt a little forced to this Yankee.
Having said that, McCormick does something very admirable: He makes the characters flesh and blood, so that one senses that the ones who presumably speak for him are not flawless, not angels, not perfectly rational or good; and the people who McCormick views as the opposition are not usually without redeeming qualities (though two male religious characters--a father and a street preacher--come pretty close to being irredeemable).
The bottom line is that I recommend "Crawl" very highly, and mostly for the pleasure of reading some great, hard-bitten, witty, authentic dialog in a fascinating setting. I have a friend from Belfast who did the crawls at about that time, and his stories of the place echo what appears in "Crawl," making me think that it's not only a great work of imaginative storytelling, but an excellent snapshot of a time and place and people as well.
I'll add that the last line of "Crawl" is brilliant.