To paraphrase Tolstoy's famous sentence: Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, one member a punching bag for frustrations and grievances. In Paul Murray's layered, beguiling "The Bee Sting," 12-year-old PJ Barnes is that bag, absorbing emotional blows from his parents and older sister as their fortunes plummet. Long considered well-to-do in provincial Midland Ireland, the Barneses must confront gossip and vendettas, circling like buzzards. The Booker Prize-longlisted novel unpacks their flaws and frailties — think Jonathan Franzen transported to the Emerald Isle.

Dickie Barnes can only stare in disbelief as his car dealership tanks amid a recession. His ambitious daughter Cass has her sights on Trinity College, but cracks beneath teenaged social pressures. His wife, Imelda (Murray's pun on a former First Lady of the Philippines), still a looker, has amassed a wealth of fine clothes. Imelda "knew every delivery man in town by name; her walk-in wardrobe was a secret paradise of unworn sweaters and shawls, boots that crowded the shoe-rails like giddy dancers, waiting to pour onto the stage." She's selling her wares online, hoping to drum up cash.

Then there's PJ, always underfoot and annoying everyone. Terrified by his family's disintegration, stalked by a bully, he plans to run away to Dublin, where he would stay with Ethan, a friend he knows only through gaming and texts. (Whether Ethan is a peer or a predator looms over "The Bee Sting" like a nimbus cloud.) His future "feels thin, flat, a fish eyeing him glassily from an Arctic sea." Both PJ and his father are drawn to a shed in the woods behind their house, but for different reasons: PJ seeks sanctuary while Dickie repurposes it as a survivalist bunker. Both yearn to escape critical, suffocating Imelda.

The Barneses' marriage is haunted by a ghost: Dickie's brother Frank, the golden boy who'd been betrothed to Imelda until tragedy intervened. Susceptible to the romantic overtures of nouveau-riche "Big Mike" Comerford, Imelda commands each scene she's in, maneuvering with a pinch of James Joyce's Molly Bloom. Dickie moves like a zombie, affectless, wiped clean by business failures and the controlling hand of his retired father, bobbing and weaving around closeted skeletons.

"He arrived in Dublin with no memory of the journey," Murray writes. "Already it was home, his family, that seemed like another life. And the hotel, the conference, these composed a kind of Purgatory, a weird, interstitial space between one world and the next." He finds salvation, or at least respite, in sex.

"The Bee Sting," then, charts a clan drowning beneath a tide of calamity; Murray is unsparing in vivisecting his characters. But even as the Barneses spiral downward, his prose pops from the page, precise and piquant, biting in its gallows humor. He's astonishingly versatile, tapping internet influences, stream-of-consciousness technique and social realism.

Fulfilling the promise of his lauded "Skippy Dies," "The Bee Sting" elevates Murray to the leading rank of his generation, alongside Colin Barrett, Kevin Barry and Claire Keegan.

The Bee Sting

By: Paul Murray.

Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 656 pages, $30.

Hamilton Cain reviews for the New York Times Book Review and the Washington Post. He lives in Brooklyn. His next review is "Foreign Bodies."