Crowe is a young Irishman desperately seeking to apply a mythic gloss to his brief, awkward life in McCormack's bleak first novel, following his praised collection of short stories, Getting It in the Head. As the book begins, Crowe is only 20 but dying of progeria, a rare aging disease. Like any old man, he looks back upon his life and tries to invest the past with some meaning. Raised in the backcountry Irish village of Furnace by his grandfather, he was an indifferent student; yet he won a place at university in the city, and fell in love with a fellow student, Maria Callas Monk. As Crowe recounts his tale, however, he recollects Furnace as a land of ""chthonic gloom,"" which ""opened up before me like a wound in creation,"" and his enigmatic grandfather as a ""harrowed visionary"" who spikes his dysfunctional lessons about life with fatalism and violence. A few years older than Crowe, Maria becomes not simply his troubled girlfriend but this image of an enchanted princess, and when she faces financial crisis, he submits to a suspicious pharmacological trial in a misguided effort to save his damsel in distress. Maria furiously and accurately accuses Crowe of always seeing himself at the center of a drama, as if the world arranged itself in order to cast him in a pivotal heroic role. Although McCormack fashions Crowe's as ""a story of death and enchantment, madness and delusion, faint hearts and fair maids,"" this is a stretch for his protagonist's more humble range. In caging his readers within the mind of a boy possessed of a vivid imagination who is destined never to grow up, literally or figuratively, the author's subversive triumph is in revealing Crowe's failure to transform himself from an ordinary luckless soul (albeit with an extraordinary disease) into a tragic hero. (Mar.) FYI: Getting It In the Head won Britain's Rooney Prize in 1996.