Patrick McCabe has published two novels, Music on Clinton Street (1986) and Carn (1989), and one book for children, The Adventures of Shay Mouse (1985), in England and Ireland. The Butcher Boy marks his impressive introduction to the American reading public. Inspired by a grisly news story that McCabe first encountered in the form of a radio play when he was eight years old, the novel draws on other sources as well. Although McCabe composed the novel while living in England, where he was teaching learning-disabled children, the small town which is its principal setting resembles, in its size and its remoteness from any cosmopolitan center, the town of Clones in Ireland’s County Monaghan, where McCabe was born and reared. McCabe has noted that his early loss of his father contributed significantly to the intensity of feeling he generates in the book. Although Francie Brady, McCabe’s protagonist, is certainly very different from his creator, McCabe’s memories of his own loss and the longing that followed it have helped carry him to his character’s emotional center.
The emotional truth thus achieved has no doubt contributed to the laudatory responses of critics, who have made comparisons not only to J. D. Salinger and Anthony Burgess but also to such masters as Mark Twain, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and Feodor Dostoevski. In England the book was shortlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize, and it was awarded Ireland’s Aer Lingus Prize for 1992.
The story McCabe tells is a chilling one. Even in the relatively benign opening pages, which focus on what might easily be regarded as the pranks that pervade the typical boys’ book, the first thing one learns about Francie Brady is that he will be hunted for something he has done to Mrs. Nugent. While progressing for the most part in straightforward chronological order, the narrative also moves in the direction of a gradual illumination of Francie’s fatal act.
Francie is an impressive creation, both as protagonist and as narrator. To capture the quality of Francie’s voice, a voice the reader is made to hear, McCabe frequently deviates from the conventions of sentence structure and punctuation. While this may constitute an initial obstacle to some readers, especially those not familiar with the patterns and rhythms of Irish speech, it more than justifies itself by the achievement of authenticity and immediacy. McCabe makes of the narrator’s vernacular an instrument that is eloquent, flexible, and often plain funny. It is not surprising that critics have been reminded of Salinger’s Holden Caulfield and even of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.
Like Holden and Huck, Francie belongs to the tradition of the boy narrator who has so far avoided becoming completely civilized. These narrators have a freshness and innocence of perception; they have not internalized the conventions by which the more respectable members of society, especially the grown- ups, organize their lives. As a result, the narrator effortlessly and more or less unconsciously assumes an ironic perspective on the social environment.
All this is true of Francie, and a result is a sometimes scathing, often hilarious portrait of provincial Irish life. Yet the direction in which Francie is moving, a direction one senses early in the novel, makes him frightening in ways that Huck and Holden are not. A major accomplishment of this novel is that although itis Francie who speaks, McCabe lets the reader see truths beyond what Francie is able to articulate: truths about the community, about the other characters, about Francie himself. The power of the novel rests not only in what Francie sees but also in how he is seen.
The act that sets the novel in motion arises from a prank played by Francie and his friend Joe Purcell. That Philip Nugent, the new boy in school, has been to a private school in England impresses Francie and Joe not at all. His comic-book collection is another matter. They must have it, and by a ruse they play on Philip, they soon get it. Mrs. Nugent, Philip’s mother, will naturally not tolerate this. She shows up on the Bradys’ doorstep to denounce Francie. There she goes too far. After all, she demands, what could one expect of a boy like Francie, since all civilized people know that the Bradys are pigs?
In fact, the Bradys are far from an ideal family. Benny Brady, Francie’s father, is an abusive alcoholic. Francie’s emotionally unstable mother is obsessed with suicide, and soon after Mrs. Nugent’s visit she makes a feeble attempt at it. She is sent to the garage, as Francie calls it; Francie knows that “the garage” is really a mental institution, but his jokes about the repair job being done on his mother provide some distraction from the ugly truth of the situation.
There is an even uglier truth that Francie cannot let himself recognize or utter. Part of him believes that Mrs. Nugent is right. Worse, part of him wishes he were in Philip’s place, the son of the genteel Mrs. Nugent and her teetotaling, pipe- smoking husband, rather...
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