Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 712
SOURCE: A review of The Butcher Boy, in Bloomsbury Review, January/February, 1994, p. 23.
[In the following review, von Mueller praises McCabe's The Butcher Boy as “an absolute masterpiece.”]
Imagine a world seen through the eyes of a little boy lost in the kaleidoscopic maze of fear and grief. Imagine a world where small-town sensibilities and pop-culture flotsam collide with childish fancy and lethal rage. Such is the world of The Butcher Boy.
Patrick McCabe's newest novel created quite a stir when it appeared across the water. The Butcher Boy won kudos and wowed critics throughout England and Ireland, garnering the 1992 Irish Times' Aer Lingus Prize. Now, thanks to Fromm International, American audiences can experience one of the most chilling reads to emerge in a long, long time.
Francie Brady lives in a small Irish town, the son of an alcoholic trumpeter and his manic wife. His story, told in first-person narrative, is one of numbing horror and wrenching sadness.
Unable to come to grips with the erosion of his parents and bewildered by the chaotic boundary between fantasy and an all-too-grim reality, Francie retreats ever further into himself. The arrival of a new family, the Nugents, to his staid community sets in motion the machine of Francie's madness. The Nugents come to represent all that frays the fragile fabric of his world. Change becomes conspiracy, loss becomes assault, and Francie quickly becomes his neighbor's worst nightmare. And ours.
Francie's mother suffers a mental breakdown and is sent to a “garage”; it is the first of what the troubled boy comes to see as deliberate abandonments. Her eventual suicide, his father's decaying mental and physical health, and his estrangement from his only pal Joe, who he is convinced has been seduced by the diabolical Nugents, leave Francie stranded in his own bleak hell.
His increasingly erratic and sometimes violent behavior lands Francie in a Catholic reform school. There, Francie's vivid and possibly psychotic imagination begins to conjure up visions from his personalized apocalypse. Among monolithic icons and pederastic priests, Francie finds himself in the company of saints, angels, and even of Mary herself:
She had some voice, that Blessed Virgin Mary. You could listen to it all night. It was like all the softest women in the world mixed up in a huge big baking bowl and there you have Our Lady at the end of it.
She had a rosary entwined around her pearly white hands and she said it gladdened her that I had chosen to be good.
I said no problem, Our Lady.
Advised by the Blessed Virgin Mary and her cohorts to keep his nose clean, Francie is eventually allowed to return to society. He takes a job as an apprentice at the local butcher, and becomes a sort of small-town oddity, an eccentric victimized by his mother's insanity and his father's alcoholism and failure.
The Butcher Boy reads like an autobiography of Norman Bates written in the hand of James Joyce. McCabe's fluid prose is by turns poignant, comical, and shocking. It is seldom that we see madmen from within, and I cannot recall ever seeing one so clearly.
So totally enrapt do we become in the experience of Francie Brady that we quickly lose perspective on his behavior. His actions, violent though they may be, are only revealed through the darkling glass of the perpetrator's carnival mind. Francie can be as charming as he is violent. He is depraved and a criminal, and yet his story is more tragic than horrific, for we suffer his torments with him. We are gnawed by his fears, thrilled by his visions, and share his desperate yearning for some salvation.
The book reaches its shattering climax as the town and the world teeter breathlessly on the brink of Armageddon during the Cuban missile crisis. By the time he confronts the dreaded Mrs. Nugent, Francie is numb to his revenge. Horribly, so are we.
The Butcher Boy is an exquisitely rendered portrait of a mind overthrown. At once a black comedy, a coming-of-age tale, and a gripping novel of suspense, McCabe's American debut is an absolute masterpiece. As disturbing as the book can be, McCabe's virtuoso prose makes irresistible this invitation to join a madman in the prison of his own mind.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 429
SOURCE: A review of The Butcher Boy, in America, Vol. 170, No. 15, April 30, 1994, pp. 22-23.
[In the following excerpt, Feeney lauds the prose in McCabe's The Butcher Boy and asserts that the novel offers “unforgettable insight into a victim's pain.”]
Patrick McCabe's The Butcher Boy and Roddy Doyle's Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha are neither political nor mythic, but they probe deeply and cannily into the consciousness of two boys and are spun with Irish word-skill. The Butcher Boy is the more painful, its tone set by the first sentence: “When I was a young lad twenty or thirty or forty years ago I lived in a small town where they were all after me on account of what I done on Mrs. Nugent.” That “done on Mrs. Nugent” is determinative, as it evokes suspense, menace, even a swaggering boast. It also establishes a distinctive voice, through which Francie Brady tells about his life: drunk father and crazy mother, a job in a slaughterhouse, Catholic reform school, his lost friend Joe Purcell, his struggle to survive. His story also reveals his peculiar consciousness—a mental olio of pigs, comic books, “the telly,” John Wayne movies, family, friends, astronauts and aliens, the Blessed Virgin Mary, “Father Bubble” at the Reform School and songs like “The Butcher Boy”—“about a woman hanging from a rope because this butcher boy told her lies.”
The Butcher Boy is hardly a pleasant read: its humor is sharp, its language rough, its life ugly, its tone unsentimental. And by the end, family and friends gone, Francie is in a madhouse, crying, “Oho! … nobody's letting me down again!” But The Butcher Boy delves into Francie's consciousness, offering unforgettable insight into a victim's pain. Its prose is onrushing and word-rich, its metaphors original: “One day I was down in the boilerhouse watching the circus of sparks putting on a show inside the big stove.” And when Francie imagines himself flying through the air in search of hope, his flight is at once realistic and surreal: “I skimmed the chimney pots over the town crying out for da and ma to tell them. Its going to be all right after all I cried. I could see the snowdrop on the ditch with my bird's eye. The children were blobs of colour clumping about in enormous shoes below in the lane, setting the toy tea-things on a wooden crate. Tassels was hacking away at the ice on the frozen puddle. I spun sideways and the black hole that has been in the pit of my stomach was full of light.”
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 370
SOURCE: A review of The Butcher Boy, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. XV, No. 1, Spring, 1995, p. 172.
[In the following review, Hemmingson discusses the characters' insanity in McCabe's The Butcher Boy.]
This trade paperback reprint of McCabe's 1992 Booker Prize Nominee and winner of the Irish Times-Aer Lingus Literature Prize for Fiction launches the “Cutting Edge” series from Delta, one month after the imprint's founding editor, Jeanne Cavelos (who also began the Abyss line of literary horror titles for Dell), left the company—so whether or not this interesting series continues (interesting with the other titles they have announced for the future) remains to be seen. A series like Cutting Edge (despite its overwrought icon for a name) is needed in the commercial publishing world of today, to offset Stephen King's latest and Erica Jong's woes-as-memoirs about getting old.
The Butcher Boy is a peculiar and morose tale told by a young Irish boy who comes from an alcoholic family and lives in rural Ireland. To say it's another “coming-of-age” story would not give it credit; it's a maddening ride with overtones of Huckleberry Finn and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man mixed with Hannibal Lecter and Freddie Krueger. You can hear, clearly, the Irish dialect of the characters as if they were recorded and played to you, rather than reading the words on a page. The young narrator, Francie, is a depressing, painful, and hurtful voice from the edge of nowhere, and he's insane. Insanity runs amok in The Butcher Boy, and leaves you feeling empty in the end.
The people of the macrocosm Francie lives in refer to his family as “the pig family,” and Francie becomes obsessed with the image and ideas of pigs, so that he's constantly ranting about pigs and piglike things, comparable to the psychotic bestial-referencing voice in Pink Floyd's classic album Animals. Francie believes, as we become engrossed in his ramblings, that he is not a human being, he's a pig—so he does inhuman things, in a world that just doesn't seem to make very much sense. Oddly enough, this book is being marketed more toward a horror-reading audience than mainstream, but like Patrick McGrath, both surpasses and accords categories.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1080
SOURCE: “Master Class,” in Observer, No. 10622, May 21, 1995, p. 15.
[In the following review, Balmer discusses the randomness of fate in McCabe's The Dead School.]
Patrick McCabe used to walk up and down Kilburn High street in search of a happy ending. He was turning over the idea that there might be a gentle way out of the blackness of his new novel, The Dead School. The men living on the pavement outside the Kentucky Fried Chicken shop would shout: ‘Hey pal, got any money?’ They could have stepped out of his book. Or perhaps they stepped into it. The happy ending, at any rate, was nowhere in sight.
Patrick McCabe made his name with The Butcher Boy, about madness: black, funny, an Irish gothic novel (shortlisted for the 1992 Booker prize). He says that what he was doing in that book was writing about a ‘pocket universe’. The Dead School, also black, funny and detailed, is no longer pocket-sized. It's about two Irish schoolteachers of different generations whose lives become tied in a hate-knot. It's an outstanding but pitiless book in which casualties are fiercely casual; life is a lottery, fate and history random and God, if he exists at all, a madman.
Patrick McCabe seems relaxed as he opens his front door. In his case, this is probably a sign of nerves. He's full of ‘insecurity’, a necessary occupational hazard, he admits. He paddles about his large basement flat, boils the kettle for tea and puts some music on (Nick Drake, a suicidal singer of the Seventies). ‘I'd like to give you a brandy,’ McCabe says looking at his watch ‘but it's a little early’. He tucks his feet up on his sofa and turns up the miserably lyrical Nick Drake with the remote control.
At this point, with the shout-above-the-class emphasis of one of the frantic teachers in The Dead School, I must hammer home the point that McCabe is not depressing, on the page or off. To look at, he is short, rakish and round with clever, funny, owlishly bright eyes (and he can be a hoot).
His prose is buoyant, his subject is not. Just as you are laughing aloud delightedly, you are stopped in your tracks by tragedy. McCabe explains that what he was after is what Carson McCullers called ‘the laughter of disaster’. How easy was it to achieve the tone? ‘It was incredibly difficult and exhausting—the book seemed so vast to me, it was like trying to drink the ocean.’ Now, he cannot judge it at all.
His narrator, like a synthetic, slightly sinister teacher, addresses readers as ‘boys and girls.’ He is, as McCabe points out, a departure from ‘the more usual Oxbridgeish third-person narrator. He is many things, a wolfish Cassandra, oracular. His is also a voice which you might encounter in the early afternoon in Ireland, in a pub in which a man-from-God-knows-where is sitting. He seems totally at ease in the environment, you are not. But silkily, he draws you in.’
McCabe himself can talk silkily (though he never seems as suspect as the man-from-God-knows-where). But his speech unspools with the miraculous no-time-for-a-full-stop-fluency that will take him through entire paragraphs without a break. He is pleased when I use the word ‘surfing’ about the experience of reading his prose because he says that what he was trying to describe was ‘the oceanic movement of history, characters tumbling on its tide and at the mercy of the capricious flick of a deity's fingers’.
The Dead School is about the caprice of Fortune; it waves goodbye to the illusion that we can control our lives. McCabe is constantly aware, especially in Ireland, of ‘the random and inexplicable nature of death’ and often demands to know whether we are all governed by a ‘malignant deity?’ He was brought up as a Catholic, but has no time for its dogma now. He does find himself picking out patterns in his own life.
I try to control my own destiny. When my two daughters Ellen and Katie were born, I decided to change my life and move to England. We ditched the extended family, which was a good thing. I was trying, in some sense, to buck history. It was a move that had the potential to destroy our marriage though it had the reverse effect. But arriving in London with a toddler and a two-month-old baby was hard. It was as if I was taking on an imaginary battle, though real to me. I tried to narrow London down, treat it like a small town.
McCabe comes from a small town: Clones in County Monaghan. He was a primary-school teacher in Dublin and in London. He hints that he was ‘chaotic’ in the classroom but is resistant to saying more. When pressed about the question of discipline, of how a teacher is supposed to get a grip on a recalcitrant class (it's a question continually begged by the book), he answers by explaining that his character Raphael, a headmaster who rules with the rod, is ‘everything I despised, a fundamentalist, rigid and arrogant, striding about like a turkey’.
And yet the other teacher, Malachy, has no solutions. He's quite at sea with his class and on the edge of a nervous breakdown. McCabe has seen this happen: ‘It's a creeping dread that destroys people. Tiny details become almost insurmountable. When you wake up in the morning, you can't put on your shoes because you are looking at your hands and thinking “what are these?”’ Has he ever felt anything like this himself? ‘Yes. I've felt close to that, though not through teaching. I can empathise with that feeling … of wrestling with the breeze.’
This is the second image of an imaginary fight in our short encounter; McCabe seems besieged by himself. Writing is ‘a compulsion, not a discipline. I never stop writing, no matter what way my life is going’. The Dead School arose out of a period in his life when he was feeling ‘very, very bleak’. It was inspired by a work he saw in Dublin, in 1977, by the Polish artist Tadeusz Kantor (to whom the novel is dedicated). It was called ‘The Dead Class’.
‘A fibreglass mannequin sat at a classroom desk, frozen in time and history, his face was blank. It was how I felt.’ McCabe was chilled. It suggested what he most fears: ‘People not connecting when they should because everyone's flesh and that's the bond, or should be.’
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 761
SOURCE: “Terror in Transition,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4808, May 26, 1995, p. 22.
[In the following review, O'Brien discusses the inevitable outcome of McCabe's The Dead School.]
Life in Patrick McCabe's The Dead School rapidly becomes terrible. Then, for a time, things appear to the protagonists to be otherwise, until fate closes its waters over their heads and throws in a few hand-grenades for good measure. If the characters have some margin for illusion, readers are never in doubt about the outcome. Cornered by the author's insinuating tones, though, most will find it hard to resist hearing his dreadful and sometimes appallingly funny story out. To say this is not to give anything away. The fascination of The Dead School lies in the details of the characters' destruction—roughly speaking, at the hands of modernity—and in the ease with which McCabe incorporates historical and cultural dimensions into the tale. As a representation of Ireland in transition, it seems unlikely to win any prizes from bord failte.
Raphael Bell, a boy “tripping over himself with brains”, sees his father shot by the Black and Tans. He devotes himself to the cause of the new-born Free State by becoming a teacher, and his energy and devotion soon bring him the headship of the prestigious St. Anthony's School, famous equally for its results and its choir. Though he and his wife are childless, life is a joy. Its high point is the Dublin Eucharistic Congress of 1932—“It was like the country was about to burst with pride.” And then, hardly perceptibly, time in Raphael's world stops, though his friend and employer Father Stokes trims and tacks his way into the 1960s, giving ground at every stage to the forces of incoherent but unstoppable secularism embodied in Raphael's bête noire, the liberated Mrs. Evans, a new-style school governor.
Half a century after Raphael, Malachy Dudgeon is not over-blessed with brains, but he too is going to teacher-training college. He too is fending off a tragedy: his mother's infidelity, his father's suicide. The armour he brings is papery compared with Raphael's conviction and scholarship: McCabe deals with the fourth-rate, dope-smoking, record-sleeve-reading hangover of ’60s culture into the ’70s with the zeal of the deconverted. A few snappy lines from the movies, plus a few songs, are the sum of Malachy's cultural capital. Just as McCabe invites the reader to share Raphael's earnest conservatism, so he reveals the brutality of change towards those who try and fail to adhere to it—those who, like Malachy, lack a saving self-interest.
Malachy knows very soon that his girlfriend Marion will leave him. The reasons are practical: his job as a teacher at St. Anthony's, for which he exhibits a complete absence of talent, and from which he will shortly be sacked, consumes most of his time, leaving him too exhausted for the social life in the Dublin of Horslips and Project Arts Centre which is Marion's late-adolescent raison dêtre. Like Raphael, Malachy wants life to be solved; and naturally, in this novel's terms, the love in which he spies his redemption will be denied him. His odyssey, downwards through London into LSD-assisted madness, is in itself a compelling exemplary history of the fate of the counter-culture's Other Ranks. Equally striking is the way everyone else knows when to bale out, including Marion, who resurfaces in the Dublin middle class to which she was always homing. One way or another, Malachy, again like Raphael, is always trying to arrive back where he started, in prelapsarian infancy. The effort leads him, pathetically clutching her talismanic copy of the record of “Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep” (subtitle: “Where's your mama gone?”), to Marion's suburban door, where he discovers that she has married and started a family with a more adult version of himself.
All this, as well as Raphael's decline into drink when faced with his powerlessness to restore the De Valeran status quo either in the school or in Ireland as a whole, is very successful, sped on by the author's various voices—fey, sorrowing, brutal, neutral. The passages at The Dead School itself, a repository of failure and fury whose main location is Raphael's head, seem somehow over-emphatic, as if the machinery of symbolism has begun to display its working rather than serving artistic necessity. But the book is not greatly diminished. With its air of dancing on a grave long after the other mourners have gone, in order to make absolutely certain that what it contains is dead, and then digging the corpse up again, it is horribly memorable.
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SOURCE: “The Tale as Talisman,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 28, 1995, pp. 1, 5.
[In the following review, Mahoney asserts that “McCabe can be forgiven … for his occasional ham-handedness and unlikeliness of plot purely based on the agility of his prose, the sheer force of his language ” in The Dead School.]
Romantic Ireland's dead and gone. So too, it seems, is love. Patrick McCabe's new novel provides horrible and humorous confirmation of both. The Dead School is a tale of the calamitous clash between old Ireland and new, a spellbinding story of betrayal and broken dreams narrated to wonderfully menacing effect by a professional storyteller who speaks in cozy, conversational style, smiling sweetly as he prepares to deliver what amounts to a stinging slap across his listeners' face: “Hello there boys and girls and I hope you are all well. The story I have for you this morning is all about two teachers and the things they got up to in the days gone by.” The teachers in question are Raphael Bell, born in 1913, and Malachy Dudgeon, born in 1956, and the “things they got up to” upon their fateful meeting in 1975 at St. Anthony's School in Dublin are bleak indeed.
Bleakness is the trademark of McCabe, author of The Butcher Boy. Suicide, adultery, cruelty, insanity, murder, inveterate drunkenness, these are his wares and, true to form, there isn't a character in this novel who hasn't been radically and irreparably damaged by some terrible misfortune or psychological weakness. Early in the novel McCabe establishes his sad, broken characters in comic book colors and strokes so deftly that one is both endeared and repelled, drawn in and slightly sickened by people who seem both real and oddly unreal, luridly fabulistic in their symbolism.
As a young boy Raphael Bell watched British black-and-tan soldiers brutally murder his father. This is a noble death, as Raphael's Uncle Joe points out, “Your father was a hero. … He died for Ireland. He's at one now with all the loyal patriots asleep in the ground.” Thus imbued with the fire of patriotism, Raphael Bell grows into the model Irish boy: head prefect at school, star athlete, devout Catholic, ardent nationalist—the living embodiment of Romantic Ireland. Fiercely committed to guiding the nation's youth, he becomes a schoolteacher, a fine one, and eventually is appointed headmaster of St. Anthony's, which he single-handedly makes over into the most successful school in all of Dublin. Bell's boys wear neckties, carry rosary beads and sing for Jesus.
Meanwhile, in another part of the country and a long time later, Malachy Dudgeon falls into the world and collides head on with a heap of modern difficulties. His mother commits ongoing and overt Sunday morning adultery in a boat shed, and his passive, heartbroken and much ridiculed father eventually drowns himself in a lake, all of which comes as a terrible blow to the innocent Malachy. Filled with resentment, Malachy shuts his mother out of his heart and vows never to love again. “Love was in the grave and that was that, like it or lump it.”
A poor and unassertive student, Malachy turns to American films, pop music and Jack Nicholson as his guide. For lack of anything better to do he, too, decides to become a schoolteacher and by coincidence attends the same teachers' training college that Raphael Bell so earnestly attended many years before. But it's a changed school indeed, with students spending more time on drugs and drink than on studies and prayer.
Eventually—and thanks to Malachy's ability to falsify his record and his intentions—Raphael Bell hires Malachy Dudgeon as a teacher at St. Anthony's. The two men could not be less alike, and therein lies the difficulty. When traditional holy Ireland meets hip modern Ireland, the result is a colossal psychological short-circuit that leads to the precipitous demise of both men. Malachy is a hapless, ineffectual teacher who has no feeling for his nation or its history, and because of him a terrible tragedy occurs at St. Anthony's, ruining Raphael Bell's sterling reputation as well as his school.
But, as the cloyingly cheerful narrator is careful to point out, Bell's ruination isn't entirely Malachy's fault. There are other forces at work; the alarming outbreak of immorality in the Irish media, for example, typified by “The Terry Krash Show,” a call-in radio show that litters the Irish airwaves with vulgar chatter about bras and sex. And there's the appearance of one Marie Evans, head of the parents' committee, a pro-choice, pro-contraception, anti-parochial kind of gal, hell-bent on sneaking illegal condoms into the Irish Republic and thoroughly modernizing Raphael's school. These radical forces and the general decline of Irish society are more than poor patriotic Raphael can take, and madness quickly sets in—so quickly, in fact, and with such dire severity that the reader finds herself blinking with surprise and not a small degree of disbelief, the more so because Malachy, too, has gone off on his own simultaneous tangent of insanity.
Which leads to the greatest flaw of this novel: Its brutal twists and turns of fate too often stretch the reader's imagination further than it can reasonably be expected to stretch. There are moments in the last third of the book when the author's macabre sensibility runs clunkily away with him, leaving the reader skeptical and perplexed as to the point of all this universal devastation and despair. Ultimately, though, (and mercifully) it is not the events affecting these characters that keep one turning pages late into the night, but the richness of McCabe's voice, his driving, highly tuned duplication of Irish speech, his quirky humor, the denseness of atmosphere and hypnotizing lack of space that permeates the novel and so skillfully parallels the mood of its principals, compressed as they are within the closet-like closeness of Irish society.
McCabe can be forgiven, I think, for his occasional ham-handedness and unlikeliness of plot purely based on the agility of his prose, the sheer force of his language, which while it cannot easily be called beautiful, positively thrums with life. And despite the long riffs of unrelenting suffering in The Dead School, there are also surprising moments of sweetness. The love portrayed between Malachy and his girlfriend is real and uplifting; so is the courtship of Raphael and his wife, Nessa. In fact, ever perceptible beneath the terrible surface of this story lies the subtle layer of gentle compassion that Patrick McCabe clearly holds for his beleaguered characters, and it is that, in the end, which redeems the book.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1100
SOURCE: “Kicking the Air,” in New York Review of Books, Vol. 42, No. 10, June 8, 1995, p. 45.
[In the following excerpt, Donoghue complains that McCabe does not bring the city of Dublin to life in The Dead School, and that the novel is not as powerful as McCabe's earlier The Butcher Boy.]
Patrick McCabe's reputation largely depends upon The Butcher Boy (1992), a gothic tale of small-town Ireland in which a boy, Francie Brady, starts out sounding like Tom Sawyer and ends up murdering a local woman, Mrs. Nugent. Francie's mother is insane and drowns herself; his father is a drunk. Francie gets a job in a pig slaughterhouse. The culture The Butcher Boy intuits—though realism is not the whole story—is a mixture of Catholicism and TV, with the addition, for Francie, of comics and the Beano Annual. Here is a passage from the scene in which Francie kills Mrs. Nugent with a “humane killer,” the gun with which his boss kills pigs:
Hello Mrs. Nugent I said is Mr. Nugent in I have a message for him from Mr. Leddy. She went all white and stood there just stuttering I'm sorry she said my husband isn't here he's gone to work oh I said that's all right and with one quick shove I pushed her inside she fell back against something. I twisted the key in the lock behind me. She had a white mask of a face on her and her mouth a small o now you know what it's like for dumb people who have holes in their stomachs Mrs. Nugent. They try to cry out and they can't they don't know how. She stumbled trying to get to the phone or the door and when I smelt the scones and seen Philip's picture I started to shake and kicked her I don't know how many times. She groaned and said please I didn't care if she groaned or said please or what she said. I caught her round the neck and I said: You did two bad things Mrs. Nugent. You made me turn my back on my ma and you took Joe away from me. Why did you do that Mrs. Nugent? She didn't answer I didn't want to hear any answer I smacked her against the wall a few times there was a smear of blood at the corner of her mouth and her hand was reaching out trying to touch me when I cocked the captive bolt. I lifted her off the floor with one hand and shot the bolt right into her head thlok was the sound it made, like a goldfish dropping into a bowl. If you ask anyone how you kill a pig they will tell you cut its throat across but you don't you do it longways. Then she just lay there with her chin sticking up and I opened her then I stuck my hand in her stomach and wrote PIGS all over the walls of the upstairs room.
Here the grotesque play of tones, the decorum of middle-class conversation, gestures learned from films and TV—“and with one quick shove”—the bizarre detail of smelling the scones and seeing Philip's picture, the formal note on the art of killing a pig: these keep readers moving insecurely from one sense of the scene to another. We are not allowed to settle upon a final understanding of Francie: the next phrase is likely to upset the judgment we have made.
There are no such scenes in The Dead School, a story of two teachers separated by a generation. One of them, Raphael Bell, was born in Charleville, County Cork, in 1913, and grew up happily till his father was killed by a Black-and-Tan, a British mercenary. A scholarship boy, Raphael goes on to become a teacher and enjoy living in Dublin in the 1930s. We read of the Eucharistic Congress in 1932 and of the great tenor John MacCormack singing César Franck's “Panis Angelicus” on that occasion. In 1937 Raphael becomes principal of St. Antony's School. A generation later Malachy Dudgeon, born into a miserable family in (I think) County Longford, grows up dire and unforgiving. He too goes to St. Patrick's Training College in Dublin and prepares to become a teacher. “It was 1974 in Dublin and was it good to be alive,” the anonymous narrator says on Malachy's behalf:
Outside the buses groaned like they were on their way to the wrecking yard. Beneath Daniel O'Connell's statue a skinhead kicked the air mercilessly with his Doc Martens as a bunch of Skin Girls urged him on, clapping and singing. Outside The Ambassador the hippies queued up for Pink Floyd at Pompeii. A tramp looked in the window and played a few bars of a song for them on a busted harmonica then went off laughing and giggling to himself.
McCabe's book asks us to believe that Malachy destroys Raphael's life and then, more gradually, his own. I am willing to suspend my disbelief, but sluggishly. I assume that McCabe had in mind a social novel, broad in scale, contrasting the Ireland of John MacCormack with the Ireland of Pink Floyd, Horslips, skinheads, secularization, and the IRA. But the contrast, page by page, is laborious; it seems less an act of the novelist's imagination than an effort of the amateur sociologist; it does not issue with any conviction from the scenes as given. Much of the writing is casual, like “mercilessly” in the passage just quoted—how does mercy arise in the skinhead's kicking the air? The novelist's imagination is not engaged.
Dublin has always been a more diverse city than McCabe's novel implies. Yeats wrote of “the daily spite of this unmannerly town,” but it had its good manners, too. The Dublin of Joyce's Ulysses is not the same as Yeats's Dublin or even the same as Sean O'Casey's. In the past twenty years Dublin has become even more various: everything depends on the scene you choose and the point of view you adopt. Roddy Doyle's streets are not Maeve Binchy's. So it is vain of Patrick McCabe to cite a few social commonplaces of twenty years ago and hope they will bring a city to convincing life. He is trying to make social allusions do his work for him. Later chapters in The Dead School, when Malachy is living rough in London, strike me as more credible, but that may be because I don't know the scene as well as I know Dublin. The Dead School is not at all as powerful as The Butcher Boy, but then few novels are.
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SOURCE: “Teaching Them No End of a Lesson,” in Spectator, Vol. 274, No. 8711, June 24, 1995, p. 35.
[In the following review, Grimond asserts, “Though here and there it irritates, Patrick McCabe's lilting way with words [in The Dead School] is ultimately memorable and persuasive.”]
The headmaster—a man of influence and stature—of St. Antony's Boys Primary School in Dublin appoints in 1975, many years through his headship, a newly qualified young teacher to take charge of Class 3. [The Dead School] tells the story of Raphael Bell and Malachy Dudgeon, the first born in 1913 and the second in 1956, and their downfall following the coming together of their careers. Before this doom-laden collision their lives are told in parallel. When Raphael is a small boy, his father wins with glory a reaping race; some time later he is murdered in the fields in the presence of his son by the Black and Tans. For the rest of his life, until just before the end, Raphael considers him a great hero. Malachy Dudgeon's father throws himself in the lake following his wife's flagrant infidelity with the local cowman, an affair conducted in the boatshed, and witnessed by her small son. Thereafter, Malachy despises his mother and talks of ‘love in the grave’.
‘Hello There’ is the title of the first chapter. ‘Boys and girls and I hope you are very well,’ is how it opens:
The story I have for you this morning is all about two teachers and the things they got up to in the days gone by. It begins in the year of our Lord 1956 in a maternity hospital in Ireland when a wee fat chubby lad by the name of Malachy fell out of Cissie who was married to Packie Dudgeon, the biggest bollocks in town.
The tone is set: the chatty narration, the combination of folksiness and raw language and, above all, the rhythmic Irishness. But the story of the teachers is a good one. Raphael Bell whose school is the envy of Dublin as it wins all the laurels, academic, sporting, even musical, begins to lose his touch at about the time that he hires Malachy Dudgeon. He cannot handle the representative of the newly created parents' committee, Ms. Evans, who has talked in public of her abortion and who requests all sorts of changes to the school. He cannot countenance the abandonment of Friday evening sodalities with rosaries and prayer books. He is bewildered by the axing of the Walton Programme on the radio which played old songs. Even his assumptions about Irish allegiances no longer hold. Utterly disorientated, he takes to the bottle and is cruel to his devoted wife, Nessa, who dies, anxious and perplexed.
Class 3 runs rings round Malachy Dudgeon who is the sort of teacher familiar to any schoolchild—the prat. His girlfriend drifts away and a child in his care drowns in a lake on a winter expedition to the park. After this tragedy he moves to London, settles in a squat, grows his hair long and greasy, acquires an army surplus greatcoat and rolls joints.
The lonely disintegration of the two characters in the grip of their addictions, their fantasies and hallucinations, and in Raphael's case, paranoia, the disgusting vignettes of their crumbled lives are richly told. Any boredom felt in this last part of the book is the boredom of being in the company of the nervous wreck or of the hopelessly drunk.
From the whimsical to the macabre, Patrick McCabe is often funny, and some periods in the teachers' lives such as Malachy's college days, when the provincial boy learns to become cool, and his time as a hippy in Stoke Newington are full of brilliant detail. Though here and there it irritates, Patrick McCabe's lilting way with words is ultimately memorable and persuasive. It is a rounder voice (and a more punctuated one) than that which took his previous novel, The Butcher Boy, to the Booker short-list.
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Kirkus Reviews (review date 1 December 1996)
SOURCE: A review of Carn, in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. LXIV, No. 23, December 1, 1996, pp. 1694-95.
[In the following review, the critic lauds McCabe's Carn.]
The first U.S. publication of an early novel, [Carn] by McCabe (the acclaimed Butcher Boy, 1993, and The Dead School, 1995) once again demonstrates his unsparing, precise view of the mingled anger, sorrow, and boredom at the heart of modern Irish life.
The town of Carn is somewhere up north, near the border where Ireland ends and North Ireland begins, and it's not much of a place. A small railway junction and cattle market, it was sleepy to start with and nearly nods off altogether when the trains stop running: “It got to the stage where no one expected anything good to happen ever again.” Then a big-shot local opens a meatpacking factory that gets the place whirring. For the people of Carn—young girls like Sadie Rooney, old tarts like Josie Keenan, IRA toughs like Benny Dolan—the life of the town becomes a substitute for life itself; the insuperable boredom and frustration they suffer is subsumed in their daily rounds as they drift from work to pub to church and back. Like most good regional writers, McCabe assembles a portrait of the place from seemingly random, modest events. And by concentrating on the lives of the town's inhabitants (of every class and condition), he allows us to see how they are bound together by a dense, shared history of poverty and oppression and by the close similarity of their habits and fears. When the larger world begins to intrude itself through the violence and terrors of the modern Troubles spilling over from Northern Ireland, the town is unprepared. While some, like Benny Dolan, welcome the violence and conspiracy as an escape from boredom, most of the people are unable to make sense of the sudden upsurge of danger. The symbolic ending is obvious and heavy-handed—appropriately so.
Marvelously rendered and deeply felt: a story about the inescapable impact of Irish history on Irish life that's told with an immense, quiet power.
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SOURCE: “Coming of Age in a Time of Troubles,” in Washington Post Book World, Vol. 27, No. 4, January 26, 1997, p. 4.
[In the following review, O'Brien points to some of the flaws in McCabe's Carn, but asserts that the novel is still “notable and worthwhile.”]
It’s 1959, and the last train has left the town of Carn, “half a mile from the Irish border.” But instead of this being the end of the line for Carn, it turns out to be the beginning of a new era, the era of James Cooney, meat factor, property developer and returned Yank (prominent in his refurbished Turnpike Inn are pictures of John F. Kennedy and Davy Crockett).
Soon Carn is booming, and the boom's accessories play their part. Jukeboxes inspire teenagers like Sadie Rooney with love and longing. Benny Dolan, heir to a family tradition of militant republicanism, takes off on a Suzuki for Istanbul instead of taking up arms. Older Carn people are affected, too. Josie Keenan, home from a dubious career as a Manchester barmaid, hardly recognizes the town where as a young girl she was abused and abandoned. Pat Lacey, a solid citizen, finds a new lease on life as coach of the suddenly successful local soccer team. It is a time of dreaming, openness, prosperity, possibility—the good old 1960s. But as the intertwined stories of Sadie, Benny, Josie and Pat reveal, it is also a time of excruciating naiveté and need, to which they fall victim when times change.
One of the early signals of that change is the kind of boom with which the '60s and the first part of Carn close, an unannounced bomb that takes the life of the novel's most colorful and most harmless character, ironically named Blast Morgan. The bomb is one of the ways that the Northern Irish “Troubles” spill over the border and into the lives of Sadie, Benny, Pat and Josie, with ultimately dire consequences for each of them. But decisive as the effect of the “Troubles” is, it's only one of the ways in which the growth and development of the characters is undermined. Economic collapse plays its part. Josie's affair with Pat Lacey has a tragic outcome. Sadie's marriage to Benny does not exactly fulfill the promise of the jukebox. Josie's friendship with Sadie is unable to provide her with the emotional support she needs. Benny passively becomes a creature of his republican lineage, which eventually earns him a life sentence for murder. The social prominence earned by Pat Lacey as soccer coach now ensures that he daren't say no when nominated to be local organizer of the Anti-Divorce League.
Rather than a predictable tale of boom-and-bust, much less a mechanical variation on the theme of plus ca change … Carn is a disturbing, dramatic and affecting treatment of emotional and social vulnerability. Not that the author makes the assumption that one of these areas of experience is responsible for the other. He's rather more imaginative than that. Indeed, one of the impressive features of this engrossing novel is how the personal and the public are shown to dovetail sometimes, to collide sometimes, to be deliberately antagonistic sometimes, but mostly to carry on oblivious of each other. Randomness characterizes the transactions between citizen and society in Carn, and the novel's style and structure expertly orchestrate randomness's erratic rhythms. Because the four central characters are unable to channel the energy of randomness, they become vulnerable to it.
In Carn, McCabe brings to the fore issues of identity, self-determination and quality of consciousness. He is not the first writer of Irish fiction to do so, but, through his quartet of central characters, McCabe gives these issues new life. Sadie, Benny, Pat and Josie are comparative newcomers to Irish fiction. Changing Ireland's new citizenry, they come across as lumpen provincials, neither urban nor rural, proletarian nor peasant, national nor international, Catholic nor otherwise. Thrust into a capitalist culture that they neither asked for nor can resist, they end up—if they're lucky—lodged uncertainly somewhere between a carnival and a cairn, with very little in the way of moral resource or psychological sophistication to sustain them. They are the less stagy and less clannish country cousins of Roddy Doyle's celebrated Rabbitte family. They are close to James Kelman's demoralized Glaswegians but don't have the solidarity of Kelman's rant to see them through.
First published in England in 1989, Carn is the author's second novel, and sometimes it shows. The tone veers uncertainly from satire to melodrama. Its use of—in effect—four protagonists proves understandably awkward and makes the novel rather less well-focused than the remarkable The Butcher Boy, his third novel. It was disappointing that Cooney, the capitalist who gives the novel such a strong early impetus, is allowed to drop out of sight rather too casually. But what matters is the author's unflinching and sympathetic attention to his hapless characters and their environment. Carn is a notable and worthwhile novel. It confirms Patrick McCabe as one of the more significant contemporary Irish novelists.
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Patrick McCabe with Christopher FitzSimon (interview date Spring/Summer 1998)
SOURCE: “St. Macartan, Minnie the Minx and Mondo Movies: Elliptical Peregrinations through the Subconscious of a Monoghan Writer Traumatised by Cows and the Brilliance of James Joyce,” in Irish University Review, Vol. 28, No. 1, Spring/Summer, 1998, pp. 175-89.
[In the following interview, McCabe discusses his background and career.]
[Christopher FitzSimon:] Ladies and gentlemen we're here to welcome and listen to Pat McCabe, author of Shay Mouse, Music on Clinton Street, Carn, The Butcher Boy and The Dead School. The Butcher Boy, as everyone knows, was winner of the Irish Times and Aer Lingus Award for Literature in 1992 and in the same year was a Booker Nominee. It has had another life as Frank Pig Says Helloon the stage and yet another life as a major movie by Neil Jordan and others, including Pat. No-one remembers who won the Booker in '92 but there's no way anyone's going to forget The Butcher Boy.
Pat is here to tell you about this book and others, and about the background to them. I don't know why I'm here; my acquaintance with prose fiction is scant. However I have read Pat McCabe's novels and I must be quite candid and say that I came to them first because I heard there was a Monaghan connection. But when I read the first paragraph of Carn, I realised that there was more to all this than just Monaghan. Some people wouldn't agree with that perhaps.
So Pat, before coming to the important questions like—what type of word processor do you use?—can you tell us something about the movie? Do you find it, quote, “true to the spirit of your book”?
[Patrick McCabe:] Certainly. First of all, I'd like to say that I do remember who won the Booker Prize that year. It was The English Patient which was subsequently made into a movie as well, as we all know.
Obviously transferring a book from the printed page to the screen is kind of a daunting prospect for anybody. When the book was finished, I thought the visual quality that was in it eventually might make a movie. But I thought ultimately that it could possibly make the worst movie ever made in the wrong hands. Because there's a kind of—I don't know, would you describe it as a sort of Hogarthian cartoon-type quality?—in it. I came across a phrase inside in Sight and Sound magazine yesterday which I thought was excellent. Rather than call something ‘poetic realism’, call it the ‘social fantastic’—which seemed to me to be a very accurate name for the sort of style that I was trying to approach in The Dead School and my other novels. Obviously, if someone isn't clued into that, if perhaps they approach provincial rural life, or whatever you'd call it, without that kind of sensibility, then what you're talking about is grotesquery and stewed Hogarthian cartoons mixed with actual reality and it's just a mish-mash of absolutely nothing. So I was worried on that score that the style, the subtleties and the kind of equilibrium of the book, would be somehow disturbed or damaged in the transferal.
But when Neil Jordan approached me and was quite enthusiastic about the book, then I began to feel very heartened. Because I had been deeply influenced by his book Night in Tunisia. There was a movie made of that also, by Pat O'Connor, which I thought managed to capture the resonances that I'm talking about—not quite in the social fantastic/poetic realism—but there was a great sensibility and a sensitivity on view there. I don't think that it's any great shame to admit that many of the components that are in The Butcher Boy, without me realising it, are actually in Night in Tunisia as well. I mean, you have a sort of an old stock father and the relationship that he has with his son; there's a musical instrument in that—a saxophone, obviously; the sea figures very largely. But more important than anything, I think, throughout the book there's a sense, a sensation of the boy's relationship to his own environment, the wind, the trees, everything. When Neil then approached me, I thought “yeah, this is wonderful” because I thought if anyone can make this book work, he can. And I never thought it would be easy. It wasn't, in fact, easy.
And did you find that certain sequences in it were going to transfer well to the screen and others might have to go? Or possibly even you wrote some more?
Well I wrote far too many more, Christopher. What actually happened was, when I did meet Neil Jordan, he said “Look, will you have a go at writing this script? Have you ever done one before?” I said “No, but I'll have a crack at it”. So I went and wrote one script which was about one hundred and twenty pages long. It pretty much was the bones of the novel with a few bits and pieces added on. I brought it to Neil and he said “Right, this is good, go and shorten it and we'll see what we can do then”. So I went off and shortened it all right. But I wrote a completely different script, and I wasn't aware of this. When I brought it to him he said “Oh this is very good, but I didn't ask you to write another novel. I asked you to write a screenplay, a version of The Butcher Boy. Now, you know, you've written all this new stuff, we can't shoot three or four movies … we've got to do something here”. So what he did was—and this is the most extraordinary thing that I've ever experienced as a writer—he sat down with the two drafts of my screenplay while he was cutting Interview with a Vampire—and I don't know, does he carry around a little computer in his pocket or what—but I met him three days later and he showed me this new script which was effectively the shooting script. This was the one which was used, with a lot of stuff written by him which I found quite remarkable really.
Very much so, yeah. I don't think that there was a jarring note that I could find.
Clones, a border town with its economic ups and downs, and mainly its downs. I think you were born in Clones and brought up there. What kind of family were you born into?
I suppose outwardly quite normal, like any ordinary family, but inwardly—fireworks, catastrophic domestic stuff and all that. Certainly there was no such thing as an ordinary family so I would say I was born into an extraordinary, ordinary family.
My parents were small town, working class, I suppose, poorly schooled but highly educated, surrounded by books, music, all that sort of thing. And because you're born into a small town your life is interwoven all the time with people; it is never divorced from people. So any time I approached fiction it always had to have the heartbeat of humanity in there for it to work. That was always why I was attracted to Joyce. Although people say he was cold, I've never found Bloom remotely cold, or any of the stuff in Dubliners.
Getting back to the Minnie the Minx thing, my father used to come home every evening on the bus from Monaghan, he was about fifteen miles away, and he used to have three magazines with him. One was Record Review, the other was The Beano or The Dandy, and The Daily Express. From when I was about four or five years of age I'd say “Did you get The Beano?” and he'd say “Yeah, I did, but I'm reading it first”. And so he'd sit down and he'd read this and he wouldn't give it to you for maybe an hour and a half because he was looking at the bits in the middle with Corporal Clott and all this crack, you know, see what the missing words are. So there'd be all this kind of stuff going on and eventually I'd get it. Then he'd read the Record Review, then he'd give me the Daily Express. So he would equally go from The Beano to reading you sections from Dickens or The Glory That Was Greece or whatever. So people often approach me and say “What is your view of Low Art? You seem to have a particular fascination with it”. But it never seemed like that. The word ‘art’ meant nothing to me. They were inextricable, these things, whether it was Thackeray or Minnie The Minx; it was all part of the same thing. Simply because my father never knew any different. So when I say extraordinary, ordinary family, I might go to bed then at nine or ten o'clock and you'd hear your mother singing something from Cavalleria Rusticana maybe and then your father says “Shut the fuck up!” And there were tape recorders in the house all the time; the place was full of records as well. There wasn't a lot of money but whatever it was went on those. So I'd say that, from a very early age, music was dreadfully important.
And your father was a musician?
He was, yeah. He was quite good actually. I suppose you can't really admit that when you're growing up but in retrospect. He was a songwriter, not of any great distinction because it was very difficult, in those days, to sell songs. He wrote songs for ballad singers like Eileen Donaghy and people like that. And he was quite a fine trumpet player. He would have started the brass band in Clones. Almost like Northern working class English culture, the brass band was very significant. There's a bit in The Butcher Boy where I've written that, around Christmas time, the town band seemed to be marching around the town forever condemned on this walk until the tunes eventually came right. Like some kind of Hieronymus Bosch Trip around Hell. They were always that little bit off, you know, but eventually Paradise would be attained whenever the tune clicked like that (clicks his fingers). There was always that sense around Clones that the town band could never get it right.
He wrote “The County of Tyrone”, didn't he?
He did, yes … yes.
And Eileen Donaghy? She sang one of his songs?
And did he write “Beautiful Bundoran”?
No, he didn't actually. I don't know where that comes from. We've used that in the film all right. But he was always singing it and playing it. That was a very popular song in Clones because Bundoran has a kind of almost magical fairy-tale place in the psyche. It was the first place that people from an inland town like Clones would have seen the sea so it does have that kind of evanescent quality about it.
And of course it's very important in The Butcher Boy because the young fellow goes to Bundoran to discover the place where he was conceived and also to meet his pal. So it must have been very strong in your mind.
Well, my parents got married there, you know. I didn't see the sea until about ten or eleven, which seems quite extraordinary these days but, I mean, it's a fact. And so it would be linked in your mind with the place where it all began, perhaps. You try to recreate your parents' past as a child, to imagine it. So even going there now, the smells and the sounds and the rhythms of it are very resonant for me.
The school you went to presumably was in Clones. You went to National School.
I went to National School in Clones, yeah, where there were great teachers actually. Again, in retrospect, when you get older you see this. There was a teacher called Gerry McMahon who said to me “Where do you get all these essays from? Are you copying them?” And I said “No, I'm not copying them”. But in a way they were copied. They were full of characters like Colonel Bagshot and Eustace De Vere Bingham and all these kind of people that you didn't see around Clones, that's for sure, so they certainly were copied in that respect. Gerry McMahon was so good. For example when you'd write about robbing an orchard and it'd turn into this kind of public school tome set in the Newtownbutler Road with “As luck would have it, we arrived …” and all this type of shit. He'd say “This is, like, daft; you're making all this up.” “Oh it's merely a figment of my imagination” was one that I used to use all the time. He said “Where are you getting all this rubbish?” and I said “I'm just making it up”. He says “Well, bring it into the classes next door and read it to them”. So you're reading all this stuff to the other classes and it was great encouragement in terms of public speaking and what you might do later on.
St. Macartan comes into that, I suppose.
Well, St. Macartan didn't really arrive on the scene until later on because he was the man who founded the school except he didn't really found it because he was born a couple of hundred years before, a couple of thousand years before that. But it was called after him. St. Macartan's Diocesan Boarding School. That was just the classic boarding school experience, walking around in the rain, you know, fellas telling you to get out of the way; studying for exams you didn't want to do, eventually riding out like a bat out of hell to begin your life.
And I suppose when you were going to school there you were also going up Fermanagh Street to the Luxor Cinema?
Yeah, well, I never really came out of it to go up or down Fermanagh Street because I was in there almost all the time. In those days, as I suppose everybody knows, you could see so many movies in a week, because you had a lot of double features. They changed every two days and then you had matinees and Saturdays and Sundays. You could see seven or eight good movies in a week. So I got a job in Joe Comiskey's, who had a grocery shop and he said “There's thirty bob, what are you going to do with that?” and I says “I'm off up now to see Dr. Terror's House of Horrors, Joe”, I'd say, and he'd say “You're what?” But by then I'd be gone. So that's what I used to spend all my money on.
And what is a Mondo Movie?
Do you want to know what a Mondo Movie is, Christopher? I'll tell you what a Mondo Movie is. The reason I mention that is because I'm writing this book of short stories called Mondo Desperado which is Italian for “It's a desperate world, isn't it?” It's kind of a book of short stories that you might describe as Winesburg, Ohio with a rocket rammed up its backside. For anybody that doesn't know, although I'm sure most people here have a fair idea what a Mondo Movie is, let me give you a taste of this book that might be out next year [i.e. in 1998] sometime:
The average person who watches Mondo Movies wants to believe that they are seeing real, forbidden, shocking scenes of unusual customs, death and violence and are all too willing to accept even the most blatant fabrications, which gives the author all kinds of licence. When watching these movies you might ask yourself questions like “Who made this movie?”, “Where?”, “When?”, and most of all “Why?” “Did the filmmakers make this film for humanitarian or political reasons or just for money? Is it intended to enlighten, repulse or both?”
So I think that would be a nice thing to have said about your book, wouldn't it?
If your father didn't actually put a scroll and a quill pen into your hand, he didn't discourage that?
No, absolutely not. I think generally in Irish families there's a great respect for education and the written word anyway. If there was any sign that the child might be anything, apart from somebody who was just wheeling a barrow around the place, they would encourage it at every turn. I think he may have been a frustrated writer himself anyway; but it just didn't happen because of lack of education.
And where, therefore, do the abusive fathers, the drudging suicidal mothers, the children who are forced to leave home for something much worse in Liverpool or Manchester, the unhappy homes—where do these all come from?
Don't get me wrong. Just because I'm saying all these things, I'm not necessarily saying it was happy, you know what I mean. All the things that you say might easily have co-existed with the other. That's the light and shade that I've always tried to describe in the books or catch a hold of, because that's what it's all about anyway, isn't it, light and shade? And I think you would be aware, even growing up, that you come from a brutalised culture, to some extent. Poverty was certainly everywhere when I was growing up—it's not now thankfully, my children won't have the same problems. But there's no question that there was a deep hurt at all levels of society, certainly in the small town that I lived in. I mean, it wasn't overt but you were always conscious of it.
The railway closed down and that must have been disastrous for Clones, economically. Then of course there was the flaring up of the Northern Troubles.
It was a huge psychological wound, there's no doubt about it. I tried to explore that in Carn. I don't know if I did it very successfully because, looking back on it now, Carn is like a social document, a sort of social-realist novel. And all the time throughout it you're aware of these little turns of phrase bursting through like small fireworks or aneurysms. Really what that's about is a style trying to emerge. It's almost like saying to yourself the social realist world isn't one you want to inhabit. It's one that's been, perhaps, overdone in fiction, and perhaps it only describes one third of the world that we live in anyway.
When I started again after Carn I'd been writing this book, this big massive tome, where you try to get all your experience in it, try to experiment with different styles. Anyway, I wrote this thing and I sent it to the publisher. Three weeks later I said “Did you get the book?” He said “Oh yes, I got it” and I said “Well, what do you think?” He said “What do you mean, what do I think?” and I said “Well, what do you think of the book? You know, the big white thing with the staples in it, that I sent you?” “Oh yes, it was no use” … “Oh really, that's great”. So that was quite devastating. And that was the end of it; he sent it back. What happened then was, there comes a time in your life when you think it's over, you haven't got it, you've blown it big-time and so just forget the whole thing. You go through a kind of a tenebrous month or two and you come out of it or you don't. In this case I read something that Faulkner had said after he'd written Sanctuary or one of his books; when it was rejected for the nth time he felt there was a door slamming between himself and the world of publishers. Suddenly it all started to make sense to me then that, whether through youth or naiveté or simply just wanting to get published, you were making all sorts of compromises and not going the distance when you could. And I said right, let's slam the door. I wrote The Butcher Boy in about a month and a half and then thought absolutely nobody would read it. That's very genuine. I thought “Here's a book written in a ska kind of style, in run-on dialogue, in a small inland town—who the hell's going to read this?” And it still amazes me actually how that book took off, I still don't know. Then the same sort of thing happened with Frank Pig. Whatever bits of plays I had been doing had been full of plants and pay-offs, in the two-act and three-act structure which handcuffs you in a way, ties up the spirit in a way that's quite claustrophobic. I met Joe O'Byrne from Co-Motion and we developed this thing and that liberated it again in another way and released a whole kind of energy through expressionist theatre.
But to get back to the Clones thing. I think there are people who can write that kind of stuff, the exterior world of a small town, much better than me. Eugene McCabe, for example, has done it in Monaghan much better than I could ever do it. His sense of history is so much better than mine. All I'm trying to explain is that that's where the experience of Carn led me, to a different world, possibly the one I've always wanted to be in.
The next world that you went to, I think, after Clones and the national school was boarding school at St. Macartan's College in Monaghan and then on to Teacher Training College in Dublin. That must have been a very big jump.
It was very liberating because at that time people weren't going to lectures or anything, they were all hanging around the Dandelion Market smoking weeds and all that kind of stuff. If you go from St. Macartan's College where they're all saying “Well, what are you up to today, Mr. McCabe? Hmmm?” and you go to Dublin where Horslips are on the move, Thin Lizzy are playing, I mean it almost justifies or validates that kind of repression. You almost say a good dose of repression is what you need to appreciate the other stuff. So to come to Dublin was fabulous. I did feel a wee bit like Francis Brady in The Butcher Boy with this kind of stuff, like “Where are you goin'? Jaysus”.
Did you do any studying at all?
No. None—I really didn't. I mean I failed music five times and I went back. You see, this was your optional subject, and I was still teaching, they let you teach until you got this thing. I eventually passed it anyway, but the studying aspect of things—you wouldn't get away with it now. It was the end of that period between the end of the nineteen sixties and 1976 when they kind of upped the standard. At that time I wasn't the only one. I'm not kind of doing some sort of bohemian thing here, nobody else did anything either that I could see.
And was this the time, as you said in this introduction, that you were “traumatised by cows”—that I can understand—but by “the brilliance of James Joyce”?
I remember picking up a copy of Dubliners out there and thinking “This could have been written yesterday”. And that's the first time I ever really felt about Irish literature that it could have been written yesterday when I always felt like Frank O'Connor was nineteen fifties, maybe nineteen sixties. But somehow just the sheer brilliance, the art of Joyce made it seem so contemporary, it was absolutely mind-blowing. And not only that. I was kind of going through a Dylan Thomas type thing between just music and rhythm and language. I didn't want it to be—bubbly, bubbly, kind of fishing-boat-bobbing-Irish-lilt stuff either. I wanted to get the intellectual Joyce, the sheer vision of it, and combine that with the humanity and language. That's something I'd like to do. I've never really managed it but it was a good start, reading Jamser.
The cows, yeah … I'll tell you something, do you know what I mean by “traumatised by cows”? Because everybody says “Oh you grew up in the country. Oh that must have been wonderful. And did your father work on a farm?” Actually, a woman said this to me in Australia, she said “Oh that must have been wonderful growing up on a farm, and not having any of those old books around and everything else—just living in there”. I said “What are you talking about? I don't know anything about cows”. She said “What do you mean you don't know anything about cows?” and I said “And the house was full of books as well”. She couldn't accept that someone coming from Ireland might actually have a different, a more variegated experience than that—it was how would you grow up in a small town and not know the difference between a cow and a bullock? But you didn't, and if you go out the town you'd go “Jesus, run—there's the bullocks!”—chased by these innocent animals. Then linked in with all this was the other butchery stuff, getting all chopped up. So I had this thing about cows.
In terms of development of a style I used to have a real inferiority complex about nature. I didn't know the names of any birds, didn't know the names of any trees, despite growing up in the country. I don't know why this is. But I assume that it's probably true of a lot of people that, in our environment, you can't name it. In terms of writing, I actually studied these things and I produced the most awful hotch-potch of literary nonsense with all these names in there. Until I discovered, again with this William Faulkner door-slamming, lots of people just say “Ah, there's the birds hopping along the garden wall”—that's all you need. But I wouldn't have had the confidence up to this. It would be like a lexicon of flora and fauna of the British Isles. But then you say, “Ah, just it's the oul‘ f … in’ birds, who cares about it, clear off, just stick them down—birds, there's the tree, there's the dog, end”. So that's what made the style, if you know what I mean. The other thing was choking me up.
I got a much darker thing when I saw that you had mentioned being traumatised by cows. I had got the chopping up of cows and the abbatoir.
Oh well, that's true too. I felt guilty about what I'd read about it.
And the entrails into the plastic bags and all that, which is a very alarming image.
I used to pass an abattoir every day and like, Clones is a very small town. We lived in Fermanagh Terrace and the school was up there and you'd have to pass the abattoir and you'd think “I'm sorry, cows. I'm sorry I didn't know the difference between you and the bullocks”. So you encounter brutality at a very early age, anybody growing up in a small town does. I particularly did because the abattoir was beside the house.
And I presume you did some teacher training on the ground, as they say nowadays, in Dublin.
Yeah, I did yeah.
But then you moved back to so-called country—Longford?
I went to Longford for four years, which was great. I really enjoyed it down there. I was playing in a band down there.
Right. It was the time of the showbands.
Well, it was the end of the time of the showbands because they were all playing in the singing lounges by the time we hit the scene. They'd shaved off the brass section and they became a smaller unit basically. So a fella arrived down at the school and I thought he was going to attack me for saying something to his child. “Do you play a bit of piano?” he said. And I said “Yeah” and he says “Will you play with me tonight in the Oklahoma Showband?” And so that gave me a great grá for really bad country music. I still break out in goose pimples every time I hear “Dear John”.
And did Shay Mouseemerge from this?
With Shay Mouseyou have a lot of different types of band playing; there's country and western, and there's various other kinds.
Yeah, well, at that time, it was about 1978, I was teaching there.
And you were very young?
I started teaching at nineteen. Don't ask me how I was let into a classroom at that time, Christopher, I've no idea. I was nineteen years of age. It was a two-year course, start at seventeen, throw you out at nineteen. So I managed it anyway, didn't lose the job.
At that time when I was teaching there were no Irish kids' books, there were none. Enid Blyton I like. The only kids' book I could find at that time was called Cornelius Rabbit of Tang—did you ever hear of that one? Well, it was written by a woman from Roscommon way back in the nineteen forties and it was the only book apart from Patricia Lynch and the obvious ones.
I know Tang, it was a Chinese village in Co. Westmeath.
That's right. Cornelius Rabbit, the Chinese rabbit, comes from there. So I decided I'd have a go at writing an Irish kids' book and use all the place names and so on, which I did. I don't know, it sold a hundred or so copies. It was worth doing I think.
But you put it into today, that was the thing. It was today, it was recognisable to kids.
Yeah, that's true. Not so much of the ass-and-cart stuff in it.
And was there a conscious decision, after teaching in Longford, to move out of the country? Were you doing the I-will-not-serve job?
Absolutely not, no. I think the whole Joycean thing about Non Serviam, I mean you become aware at an early age that that belongs to a certain time. You'd actually get embarrassed if you said to someone “I will not serve”. They'd laugh their heads off. “You're what? Non Serviam. Yeah, sure, yeah … good luck”. Because nobody cares, people were coming and going out of the country anyway. Non Serviam when people are flying across the world right left and centre, you'd just be the village idiot wouldn't you? “Oh there's Non Serviam up there again! I suppose he's writing a few books!”
The only reason I came to Dublin was just for a change. In some ways people just follow their lives, whatever changes take place. It was never any hauteur in that respect. I never felt I was good enough for that kind of thing, you know. Joyce certainly had the Parnassian disposition to assume that, because he was a genius basically. But it would be ludicrous to formulate a philosophy like that, in my respect anyway.
And you wrote Carnin Dublin, did you?
I wrote it in Balbriggan, actually. I moved on to Balbriggan then, and then I went to London.
That must have been some culture shock.
Where, Balbriggan? Ah, Balbriggan was great. “How's it goin' there? Ye'all righ‘?” “Yeah, not a bother”. “Sure, yeah, writin’ the books?” Like the mix of Drogheda and Dublin, it was very good. I was there for four or five years. I was kind of writing seriously at this point, starting to think if there was a way out of teaching, because I think teaching is an exhausting profession. But there's a lot of hours in the night, you know, if you want to write a book.
And The Butcher Boy,London?
Yeah, The Butcher Boy was written in London, yeah.
Was this, looking back, Exiles,in other words?
I don't think so. Perhaps there is something about being in a strange place, or in an alien culture. To some extent and in many ways England isn't an alien culture at all. But in terms of the voice and the language it is. You know—“Thirty cigarettes”. “What?” “Turty cigarettes”. “What?”—all that kind of stuff, you know, it kind of focuses the thing and refines your ear. I spell it out to them. I actually spell it out.
Yes … Cigarettes … Whatever, I don't know. I think as well as that, definitely being in London where you're surrounded by every culture in the world, you start to realise just how rich language is. That was what The Butcher Boy was partly about. I wasn't trying too consciously to do it, but you see, the things that people say, ordinary human exchange, you know—“Not a bad day”, “‘Tis surely”; “How's it goin’?” All this kind of stuff that you hear, the rhythm of it, it's actually quite fascinating I think really. It's only when you put it down in a context that you start to see it.
Well, when you're doing the dialogue, it's fair enough. You follow the ordinary speech patterns of the people, the people whose voices are going around in your head. But when you come to what we would call the prose passages, how is it that so many writers, writers living and writing in this country today, when they come to the descriptive passages or the thoughtful passages and so on, it goes into a sort of scholastic prose and it's quite different from the dialogue?
No, you're absolutely right. That's what I was trying in a way. You've said it much more articulately. In Carn, I found constantly you describe and then suddenly you're back into God-mode, you know, the omnipotent narrator sort of stuff and you think “Ah, this is wrong”. To actually get into that and to reinvent the language, as it were, that's what I was describing with The Butcher Boy. And you really have to feel the white heat of it because any other way is wrong. You can't think yourself into a novel by saying “Right, what'll I do today? I'll write a novel about a young fella that grows up in Ireland and slaughters a middle-aged woman. What about that?” No, it's just the sheer intensity of the feeling. And it also has to be linked in with your own life. I don't know, maybe if you haven't known disappointment, or if you haven't known exile, can you do any of these things? But there does certainly seem to be a sense where the scholastic, dispassionate prose has disconnected you, or you don't want to be connected with the real pain of life or the real joy of life. Somehow, it's a fingernail-paring kind of thing, and ultimately it's not rewarding really for reader or writer.
So as distinct from Carn, in The Butcher Boy you go into first person mode and that would help that, wouldn't it?
Well, you see, it helped me. But there are no hard and fast rules. The original version of it was written in the third person, which again had me disconnected, looking down the chessboard. And it was okay; it was a workman-like piece of prose. But it was a book you could take or leave and for this kind of a book to work it had to grab you by the throat and pull you in.
I see that you brought your music with you. Could we prevail upon you to read a piece of The Butcher Boy?
Yeah, sure. I'd love to. I was going to read the first page but I've changed my mind. I think I'll read the bit where he goes to Dublin, now that we've mentioned it. So after domestic conflagration Francie Brady decides—he's about eleven years of age at this point—to go to Dublin:
Every day I walked until it got dark. I slept under bushes and once in a tyre. I didn't know what day it was when I reached the city. I was exhausted so I leaned against the big sign. It read: WELCOME TO DUBLIN.
The buses were green as gooseberries and a stone pillar cut the sky. This is Dublin I says to a fella yeah its Dublin where do you think it is for the love of Jaysus. I liked the way he said that and I tried to say it myself. Jay-zuss. Who's that over there I says to this woman and she looks at me with her mouth open. A big grey statue mouthing about something in the middle of the street and birds shitting all over his head. I thought it was the president but she told me it was Daniel O'Connell. I didn't know anything about him except he was something to do with the English and all that. The way they were going across that bridge you'd think someone had said: I'm sorry but we're going to let off an atomic bomb any minute now. Bicycles going by in dozens, tick, tick, tick. Where were they all going. If they were all going to work there was a lot of jobs in Dublin. It was eight o'clock in the morning. There was picture houses and everything. Over I went. The Corinthian Cinema written in unlit lights. What's going on here I said. The creatures were coming to take over the planet earth because their own was finished there was nothing left on it. The shaky writing said they came from beyond the stars bringing death and destruction. I'd have to go and see them aliens when it opened up. I went into a chip shop. There was a woman with bags and half a beard muttering to herself and spilling tea on the saucer. She said she hoped the communists won she said they're no worse than the rest of them. She looked over at me and told me she had two sons. And neither of them were any good she said. I wasn't listening to her. I was thinking about how I was going to get money to see the aliens. The girl says to me what would you like. I says chips. What have you been up to she says you look like you've been dragged backwards through a ditch. Oh just walking I says. You'll need a few extra chips so she says and gives me a big heap. I could see her counting money in behind the counter. Then off she'd go into the kitchen with the door swinging behind her I could hear her going on about dances. I wished the old woman would hurry up and get out, her and her sons and her bags. Soon as she waddled off I waited for the girl to go back into the kitchen. I was in behind the counter like a bullet and I stuffed any notes I could into my pocket. Then I ran like fuck. All the way down the street I kept thinking: Hunted from town to town for a crime he didn't commit—Francie Brady—The Fugitive!
Except for one thing—I did commit it. The first thing I did was I went into a sweetshop with bullseyes and the whole lot. There was a woman there with a chain on her glasses. What did she think—someone was going to try and steal the glasses off her face? Thirty Flash Bars I said. I put them all into my pockets and ate as many of them as I could.
The clarity of the observation of this young fellow, in his disturbed state, appealed to me very much when I was reading it. He sees everything so very clearly even though there are these awful things swirling around in his mind.
It's not something I can authoritatively speak on because, as I say, this whole thing came through a surge of emotion. Obviously you pick up bits and pieces as you're making your way as a writer, things which are important to observe, but you would never be conscious of it. Obviously you need control. You just can't bang out a bunch of white heat and go around calling it a novel. You have to know what to leave out and what to put in and so on. But once the control is there, it's just that door thing of not worrying too much about publishers or public or anything else.
In the dialogue in this and indeed in Carn and in The Dead School, there's something very terse, something very laconic about that Ulster dialogue, isn't there? That it couldn't happen as far down as Tipperary.
Well, I suppose each district has its own style, in a way. I've always kind of shied away from that. I've never been consciously aware of belonging to any tradition, and I certainly wouldn't want to be, except maybe a music and folk tradition but certainly not a literary tradition.
It seems to me that in Carn you are able to combine, juxtapose, this observant writer on one side, a sort of detached, ironic observation, and the person who is feeling it at the same time. Are there two sensibilities at war here or is there a fusion?
I think that's the problem with the book. There are two sensibilities at war and that's ultimately what weakens the book. It always intrigues me when journalists ask me, “It must be wonderful for you having written this Butcher Boy”. The implication is “How tragic that the rest of your books are rubbish”. A successful book or a failure of a book, are all like members of one family to me. The Butcher Boy couldn't have been written without Carn. I can't view books the way literary critics view them or perhaps journalists view them because I'm too emotionally bound up with them. What I can definitely say is that, as a writer, I can see the weaknesses or otherwise of the ones which preceded it. Because I was aware of the conflict that you're talking about, of the kind of dispassionate scholastic annotation of the life rather than …
It's not scholastic in your case …
Well, it's a little bit too much so, maybe not as much as the other, but certainly they are pulling in two different directions.
What kind of word processor do you use or do you use one?
Do you mean for poems or for short stories or for novels? I've a different one for each. I have a big one for novels and a little one for poems.
Would you like members of the audience to ask questions? Would anyone like to put a question to Pat? Or will there be a dreadful silence?
There usually is a dreadful silence.
Is The Dead Schoollikely to be filmed?
I don't think it would make a good film, do you?
I think it might.
Do you reckon? I don't know. I mean, I can't imagine it, it's too internal. The Butcher Boy I felt would make a good movie. It's like Huckleberry Finn, you've got this sense of engagement with the world all the time. Whereas The Dead School is too literary, I think. It's too much of a sense of history that you can't capture on screen. It could possibly be done as a TV thing maybe but I wouldn't be in any rush to encourage anyone to do it really, to be honest.
But in the two worlds of the two main characters, there's a wonderful sort of contrast and the times that were in it as well, no?
Possibly. I mean, it'd have to be radically rewritten and then you'd be into all the compromises of screen writing and everything else. You'd just wind up in a mental hospital somewhere.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 837
SOURCE: “Bloody Sunday in Hot Pants,” in Observer, May 24, 1998, p. 17.
[In the following review, Lee discusses the horrifying world of Patrick Braden in McCabe's Breakfast on Pluto.]
This is a horrible and pathetic story, told with irresistible zest, brio, and gaiety. That's what we've come to expect from Patrick McCabe, and Breakfast on Pluto is no disappointment. He is a dark genius of incongruity and the grotesque. Whether with the boy misfit-turned-crazed-murderer in The Butcher Boy, or the demented headmaster in The Dead School, McCabe's brilliant, startling talent is to make enchantingly dashing narratives out of the most ghastly states of mind imaginable, and to induce compassion for lives which seem least to invite it. In The Butcher Boy, violence boiled up through the narrator out of his griefs, traumas and losses. In Breakfast on Pluto, the violence and hatred seething inside the story-teller are in response to the horrifying world around him.
Or rather her. For our narrator is Patrick ‘Pussy’ Braden, Irish transvestite prostitute, child of a 16-year-old country girl and a rapist priest, dumped by his mother in a Rinso box, fostered with other abandoned children by ‘Hairy Ma’, seeking revenge on the priest who has never acknowledged him and searching for the mother he never knew.
Pussy Braden outrages his little town (‘Tyreelin’, south of the border, somewhere between Enniskillen and Cavan). Caught trying on his foster-sister's dresses, he flounces out of his ‘home’ and into the hands of a well-known local politician (later to be found dismembered), whose plaything he becomes. Then, more and more of a style-queen, he's off to Dublin in 1972 and on to ‘the Meat Rack, Piccadilly Circus’, and ‘the flashing console colours of this most wondrous city’. Here, ‘Pussy’ moves through a brutal, seedy underworld of sex-killers, sad old lovers, lonely landlords and the Seventies night-scene, with its ‘Clockwork Orange gangs and skinheads and hippy dealers’.
Pussy's performance in this theatre of the grotesque is all flamboyant surface, artefacts and fashions. The novel is decorated with Pussy's fancy period get-ups, ‘a belted sweater in yummy plum to match your crushed velvet hot pants’, ‘baby pink satin jacket and stackheeled glitter boots’. Make-up and perfume brands, style-setting shop names, film stars and movies and records litter every page. (Breakfast on Pluto was a 1969 Don Partridge hit, whose romantic escapism is sadly at odds with the novel's real story.) Pussy constructs herself an identity as far from nature as she can get. She does a great Dusty Springfield imitation, and models her looks on Lynsey de Paul.
To match, the novel shows off a dandyesque pastiche of styles, and keeps buoyant with fancy chapter-titles (‘In a Pig's Ear, Sweetie Pie!’), mannered exclamations and inversions (‘and by the surging throng once more was swallowed up’, etc.) and parodies of popular sentimental styles:
What we see before us is a fine, stone, cottage, built by the labouring hands of a gentle, strong man who is husband to the woman who now softly reads to her bright baby boy.
The combined effect of high camp and low cliché is like a cross between Carter's Nights at the Circus, Joyce's parody of Gertie McDowell in Ulysses, and Beckett's Malone, trying to make himself tell the indescribably tedious childhood story of Saposcat and the Lamberts.
But Pussy Braden can't hold history at bay through the gaiety of style, even if his response to Bloody Sunday is to think about which of the ‘luscious goodies’ he's just shopped for should be tried on first. Braden's story is locked in at every stage to the Troubles. Tyreelin is infested by the IRA, and one of his childhood friends, Irwin, becomes an active member, later to be murdered as an informer. Irwin's girlfriend Charlie, Braden's closest companion, has a breakdown after the murder. In London, during the campaign of mainland bombing, British hatred of the Irish is all around him. He's in a pub-bombing, and is arrested as a suspect.
Braden's thoughts fill up with the appalling stories of the murder of children and ordinary citizens, in Ireland as in England. Increasingly, his desperate playfulness cracks apart into terrible dreams of revenge, and we switch between his grandiose fantasies of becoming ‘the Lurex Avenger’, and savagely ironical accounts of cruel killings.
Over this dark story hangs the useless figure of the Saviour. Francie Brady in The Butcher Boy is so enraged by his pity that he knocks the head off his statue. Patrick Braden has no time for him either:
Guess who was on the Cross as usual. Looking down to say: ‘Ah, Paddy,’ ‘Ah Paddy, what?’ I said and shook my head. What was He on about?
Since we are caught inside Braden's voice, the point is never spelt out, but the link between the violence of the Troubles, and the religious, sexual and social repression that formed his life, is powerfully apparent. Under his lurid appetite for style, McCabe is a profoundly moral writer, and the energy that pours through his books comes out of that.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2090
SOURCE: “Patrick McCabe: A Comedy of Horrors,” in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 245, No. 46, November 16, 1998, pp. 50-1.
[In the following interview, McCabe discusses his career as an author.]
On a Wednesday night so dark and wet it has cleared the Sligo streets of life, P[ublishers] W[eekly] arrives at Patrick McCabe's terraced house in the center of town and immediately feels like an intruder into a scene of everyday domestic turmoil. McCabe, a two-time Booker Prize nominee, is cursing a computer that will not allow his 13-year-old daughter to go on-line in search of information on the Titanic. It's for a school assignment, she complains; he tells her to look it up in a book; she tries once more to connect, failing again. More mutterings at the screen are drowned out by the sounds of other householders marching from room to room upstairs. The telephone rings, and a young girl—the author's other daughter, presumably—shouts that it'll be for her. Leading us to the relative calm of the kitchen, McCabe clears away the remains of the family dinner, deposits the dishes in the sink and sets to making a large pot of coffee. Just when we are settled in at the table to begin, McCabe is called to the telephone, to which he lends one ear while with the other he monitors the commotion from above.
It's scene of such blazing normality that squaring it with McCabe's mischievous fiction, which takes place in a landscape of distracted, collapsing sanity and features characters ranging from the bizarrely dysfunctional to the comically murderous, is a difficult, if not impossible task. Indeed, dressed casually in an old pinstripe jacket, T-shirt and jeans, and surrounded by the detritus of home life, the 43-year-old author, considered a sort of high priest of rural Irish dementia, seems out of place. His world seems, however cluttered, wholly sane. But such incongruity may in fact be the key to understanding the worlds he creates in his fictions.
McCabe's conversation, once we get down to it, is peppered with references to Walter Pater, Graham Greene and European art, but also Bob Dylan, the films of Sam Fuller and a range of 1960s science fiction films. He speaks soberly and seriously of his new novel, the Booker-nominated Breakfast on Pluto, out this month from Harper Collins. While pausing to respectfully tip his hat to James Joyce and Carson McCullers, he arrives at the more Technicolor description of the book as “Roy Lichtenstein goes to Leitrim”—evoking both the garish coloring of Breakfast on Pluto and the Irish county in which much of the story is set. He goes on to describe a planned collection of short stories as being like “a mondo movie about a small Irish town in the 1960s; Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, after a feed of drugs.”
In his fiction, too, gleeful ambiguity is the name of the game. Served up in a chatty, colloquial narrative voice, his darkly satirical burlesques strut the line between comedy and horror, while his characters are equal parts lovable and chilling. In his breakthrough third novel, the Booker-nominated The Butcher Boy (1993), a disturbed 13-year-old narrator slays his best friend's mother and terrorizes his home town while remaining on the outside a likable young charmer. His next work, The Dead School (1995) focused on an increasingly psychotic school teacher locked in battle with a drug-addled, love-lorn colleague, both of whom remain sympathetic, after a fashion. McCabe's latest offering, which completes a thematically linked trilogy begun with The Butcher Boy, features one Patrick “Pussy” Braden, a transvestite rent boy from small-town Ireland with IRA connections, a beehive haircut and an endearing Dusty Springfield fixation. A grown-up version of Francie Brady, eponymous hero of The Butcher Boy, 19-year-old Pussy is perhaps the first gender-bending prostitute ever to appear in a Booker-nominated novel, and is certainly the first character of his kind in Irish literature. But as the domestic normality around the author emphatically underlines, just because he has created Pussy and a clutch of other off-the-wall kooks doesn't mean McCabe is himself anything other than ordinary, the author says.
“A lot of people read the books and believe I must be some sort of freaky-deaky dude,” he protests, when asked where his bizarre cast of characters actually comes from. “But that's not the case at all. It's not that difficult to put yourself inside the head of a character, and it's no more difficult to put yourself in the mind of a transvestite prostitute than it is to put yourself in the mind of a boy whose heart is broken and who chops up a woman. Writing is like method acting. You sit down and do the work and just switch off when it's over.”
Which is probably just as well, given the exploits of his latest creation. Set largely during an IRA bombing campaign in the early 1970s, the new novel traces Pussy's decline from effeminate youth in an Irish border town to the back streets of a London gripped by fear and hatred and under siege from terrorist explosives. Mixing lyrical prose with a range of narrative voices and chronologies—a departure for McCabe, whose previous novels have had linear structures—the book emerges as an archly ironic comedy of horrors that hurls the reader from laughter to repugnance, often in the space of a single phrase. Despite the lurid subject matter, McCabe insists the book is about bigger things than the central character's sexual preferences. “It's about politics and borders and gender borders,” he explains, stroking a tightly-clipped beard and mulling over every word. “It wasn't a deliberate step into political fiction, but I grew up in the 1970s when you couldn't avoid politics, and it would have been remiss of me and ignoble to walk away from something that's crying out to be written about.”
The second of five children, McCabe was born in 1955 near the Northern Ireland border in Clones, Co. Monaghan. A late convert to literature, he was obsessed with American music and culture, devouring comics (he still has a collection of favorites from his childhood) and seeing as many as 10 Hollywood movies a week. He trained as a teacher in Dublin and taught in a variety of schools by day, but raced around Ireland's theaters and dance halls by night, playing keyboard with a popular cabaret band who specialized in country-and-western covers. He always considered himself a writer, however, and eventually faced the choice of turning professional musician or devoting his energy to novels.
In 1985 he hung up his amps and moved with his family to London, where he taught for eight years and wrote in his spare time. But that is not to say that he has discarded music. On the contrary, he begins a novel not with a plot but with a mood, usually suggested by a song or lyric. Although it deals in the currency of terrorism and sexuality, Breakfast on Pluto itself was inspired by a kitschy 1969 U.K. hit by Don Partridge, and is filled with references to music and songs of the early 1970s.
In 1986, McCabe published his first novel, Music on Clinton Street (the title was lifted from the Leonard Cohen song “Famous Blue Raincoat.” His second effort, Carn (published here as a Delta trade paperback in 1997) attracted positive reviews, but he seemed destined to remain in relative obscurity until, in 1992, and seemingly out of nowhere, The Butcher Boy appeared to near-universal acclaim. The Booker nomination brought further attention, and when director Neil Jordan bought the rights to the book, McCabe was granted the financial wherewithal to quit teaching and devote himself full-time to writing. One of his first projects was to collaborate on the screenplay with Jordan, who has also purchased the rights to the new novel. The film was released in 1997 and featured a hilarious cameo by the author himself as town drunk Jimmy the Skite. McCabe remembers his brush with the silver screen fondly: “That wasn't acting,” he laughs. “It was just being drunk.”
As well as financial independence and a move back to Ireland, the international success of The Butcher Boy book and film brought more than a few multi-book offers. But McCabe has never believed in selling something he hasn't yet written, and continues to deal on a one-book-only basis. It frees him from pressure to produce, he says. “Going on these odd journeys is so much a part of my personality that I want to go there alone,” he maintains. “I don't want someone coming along with me to ask how the journey is going, and reminding me that they've bought the ticket.”
Breakfast on Pluto came out of a particularly arduous two-year journey. Writing entirely in longhand, he produced an uncharacteristically long first draft for a novel he intended to be short and spare, and credits his U.K. editor John Reilly (now at Faber) with helping deliver the final draft. But McCabe faced further difficulties with the book: American publishers wanted nothing to do with it. He still seems genuinely puzzled, and perhaps a little hurt, at the reaction the manuscript received stateside.
“Everybody who read it said it was madcap and funny and camp, but that there wasn't enough story to it,” he recalls. “A lot of them prefaced their comments with ‘Having adored The Butcher Boy I was deeply disappointed …’ Maybe they just didn't get what the book is about.”
McCabe remained convinced the novel had an audience. Exasperated with the progress of American representatives, he gave the novel to Irish agent Marianne Gonne O'Connor, an old school friend he describes as among the most gifted agents in the world, and within a couple of weeks she had placed the book with Paul McCarthy at HarperCollins. “What turned it was that I found an editor who understood the book,” McCabe explains matter-of-factly. “McCarthy turned out to be one of the most brilliant editors I've ever worked with. He knew instinctively what I was doing.”
The subsequent Booker nomination was a vindication of his and his editor's belief in Breakfast on Pluto, McCabe says. “You develop the skill of being stoic in the face of rejection early in your writing life and if people smack you around, you just have to endure it,” be says. “Even more than a selling point, the nomination is a vote of favor and confidence in a book people were shaky about.”
Next on the author's schedule is a diversion away from literature, and into another apparent incongruity. Along with Irish lounge singer Jack L., the author has recorded a 2-CD set of readings and performances with accompanying music, for release next year. He intends touring North American theaters and concert halls in support of the release in January. “There's something very electric that happens to an audience when the rhythm of a sentence dovetails almost perfectly into the beginning of a ballad or the chords of a song,” he says. “I do it for that, and because if you're living in your imagination all day long making up stories, and have no other way to interact with the human race, it's a very unhealthy place to be sometimes.” The return to music is unlikely to amount to more than a one-off, however. Although he has no plans for new fiction beyond a collection of short stories scheduled for late 1999, McCabe says he remains tied to the routine of writing and domesticity.
“Writing novels is a bit like being a seamstress,” he says. “It's a stitch at a time, and if you're away for three weeks and have to come home to start again, the whole thing is unraveled. All those things that turn your life upside down ultimately interfere with the kind of dull, ordinary monotony that is essential for writing fiction.”
And while he is anything but dull and monotonous, McCabe is as far from Pussy Braden and the confused terrain of Breakfast on Pluto as it's possible to imagine. Bidding farewell to P[ublishers] W[eekly] at his front door, he already has one eye on the computer that had earlier blocked his daughter's schoolwork. Interview over, he is no longer the chronicler of fractured Irish lives and creator of macabre, cracked characters, but an ordinary father who has to get the kids ready for school the next morning.
Additional coverage of McCabe's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 130; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 50; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 194.
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