Obsession and guilt are the two forces that clash head-on in Bernard MacLaverty’s second novel, Cal. His characters, many of whom have been stripped of their humanity, exemplify the human tragedy of Ireland’s violent history. In Cal, MacLaverty continues to explore the subjects of loneliness, sin, freedom, and responsibility that preoccupied him in his critically acclaimed first novel, Lamb (1980) and his short-story collections Secrets and Other Stories (1977) and A Time to Dance and Other Stories (1982). Conflicts between sin and forgiveness, loyalty and betrayal, crime and punishment, violence and justice, maturity and responsibility permeate his works. In Cal, MacLaverty takes a particular family, and through them depicts the real victims of Ireland’s struggle.
Cal, nineteen years old and unemployed, lives at home with his father; they are the only Catholics in a Protestant neighborhood. As the novel begins, Cal is besieged by guilt for helping in a murder and obsessed with desire for the woman he helped to make a widow. Guilt and desire combine to make Cal a psychological cripple. As his character unfolds in flashbacks, it is clear that he is a passive, sensitive youth, easily intimidated and manipulated by others. Although he is railroaded into rallying behind the Irish Republican Army (IRA), he cannot understand the hatred between Irish Catholics and Protestants. “It was the idea of people whose faces he did not know hating him that made his skin crawl,” the omniscient narrator observes. “To be hated not for yourself but for what you were”: this Cal cannot comprehend. Because he is easily manipulated, Cal is vulnerable to the likes of Crilly and Skeffington, two IRA supporters who enlist his aid. The consequences of his passive behavior are enormous and tragic. Overwhelmed by Skeffington’s cold, cruel reasoning and intimidated by Crilly, a street thug, Cal agrees to assist in armed robberies to gain money for the IRA. Initially wavering, Cal finally succumbs to Skeffington’s logic: “think of the issues, not the people.” To Skeffington, who believes that sacrifices must be made for the movement, death and human suffering mean nothing. “The problem with this kind of thing,” he lectures Cal, “is that people get hurt. But compared with conventional war the numbers are small.” Initially, Cal’s capitulation requires him only to drive the getaway car for several burglaries, but ultimately it means driving the getaway car for a murder. In one terrible moment of weakness, Cal sacrifices a human life for the sake of the issues.
The novel begins a year after the murder, with Cal trying to fill his empty days by strumming his guitar, going to the library, cooking for his working father, Shamie, fearing the Irish Protestant threats, and attempting to rid himself of guilt. Conflicts converge on him from all sides. His environment, an all-Protestant suburb of Belfast where hatred and violence are a way of life, poses daily threats. Both his friends and enemies intimidate him. Skeffington and Crilly threaten reprisal if he fails to assist in IRA-backed crimes, while Protestant youths threaten to firebomb his home. Finally, his psychological torment over killing reserve police officer Robert Morton gradually destroys his mental stability. To make matters worse, Cal is unemployed, providing more time for guilt to fester. Even his unemployment is a consequence of his guilt. He has quit his job at the abattoir where his father works because he does not have a “strong enough stomach.” In short, he cannot stand the sight of blood pouring from the slaughtered beasts. This repulsion emerges as the first hint of guilt that continues to plague him throughout the novel. The blood as well as the “tumble of purple and green and grey steaming innards” falling to the ground “from the raised carcase” makes Cal sick. In contrast, Crilly, the thug who meticulously planned and executed the murder, has no trouble working at the abattoir and thus takes Cal’s job.
Cal’s guilt keeps him mentally imprisoned even though he is physically free. Images and dreams haunt him—above all the image of Robert Morton “genuflecting” as he called out to his wife, Marcella, after the first of three bullets tore through his skull at point-blank range.
Cal, whose name has obvious Catholic connotations, continues to attend Mass but not confession; “the thing he had done was now a background to his life, permanently there, like the hiss that echoed from the event which began the Universe.” During one particular Mass, a priest’s sermon suggests to Cal that he must experience pain to achieve forgiveness. The priest tells the story of Matt Talbot, a drunken derelict for ten years, who sought atonement for his decade of debauchery by wearing a chain around his waist so tight that it grew into his flesh. The sermon, like the recurring image of Robert Morton “genuflecting” as he falls from Crilly’s bullets, haunts Cal. Physical pain Cal has not yet experienced; psychological pain is his constant companion.
On one of Cal’s frequent trips to the library to borrow musical tapes, he sees a new librarian to whom he becomes attached before he learns her name: Marcella Morton. Although he...
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