Cal tells the story of a young Catholic man from Northern Ireland during "The Troubles." He participates in some crimes that benefit the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and harm the Loyalist cause, and the most personally upsetting one was the murder of a Protestant cop, Robert Morton. Cal's mom died when he was younger, and he doesn't have a great relationship with his father, Shamie. It doesn't seem like Cal's self-esteem was ever through the roof, but the absence of his mother and the presence of this new source of shame and guilt has caused him to become depressed. The narrative focuses, to a large extent, on Cal's guilt and the effects that it has on his present state.
His obsession with Marcella Morton, Robert's widow, is inextricably linked to his guilt over her husband's death. It's as though he is called to their house, pulled there by his horrible guilt. Sleeping with her only intensifies his guilt; it seems that all he wants to do is get closer and closer to her, but their closeness and her ignorance of his role in Robert's murder is also the thing that causes him the most intense pain. Cal is relieved, in the end, when the cops finally come to pick him up. He had, early on, been scared of losing his dignity if he were beaten, but now he feels "grateful that at last someone was going to beat him to within an inch of his life." His guilt has affected and influenced every action or thought he has had, and so he is happy to finally get the chance to purge himself of it.
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...
(The entire section is 2,497 words.)