Truth in an idiot’s tale

Liam Dav­i­son

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

PA­TRICK McCabe’s ninth novel is not so much a re­turn to form af­ter the suc­cess of Win­ter­wood in 2006 as it is a re­turn to type. Win­ter­wood was a de­par­ture for McCabe, who had writ­ten him­self into a cor­ner af­ter the ear­lier suc­cesses of The Butcher Boy and Break­fast on Pluto . While it re­tained fa­mil­iar de­vices such as the delu­sional nar­ra­tor and its crit­i­cal take on mod­ern Ire­land, it was un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally con­trolled in its de­liv­ery.

Not so The Holy City. This is McCabe at his sac­ri­le­giously ir­rev­er­ent best, or worst, de­pend­ing on how you like your hu­mour stirred.

It’s a re­turn to what John Banville re­ferred to as McCabe’s ‘‘ black an­tic com­edy’’, with el­e­ments of his hall­mark bog gothic melded with bur­lesque to cre­ate a me­an­der­ing, sar­donic take on the state of the Ir­ish na­tion. It’s a book that si­mul­ta­ne­ously at­tracts and re­pels read­ers, not least be­cause of the char­ac­ter telling the story.

C. J. ‘‘ Pops’’ McCool is ‘‘ a real gone kook’’, the 67-year-old bas­tard son of the wife of Dr Henry Thorn­ton, no­to­ri­ous Protes­tant critic of all things Catholic. The prog­eny of his mother’s one-night stand with a Fe­nian ac­coun­tant, McCool is ban­ished from the house to be reared by Catholics. Ac­cord­ing to Thorn­ton, the Catholic tem­per­a­ment is de­bauched and de­graded. Catholics should be ap­pre­hended as un­rea­son­able and as hys­ter­i­cal as the crea­tures of their imag­i­na­tions, the ban­shees.

If Chris McCool’s rant about the events of his past is any­thing to go by, one may won­der about the ac­cu­racy of such a judg­ment. He is a tan­gle of con­tra­dic­tions. A long-term res­i­dent of the Happy Club, he lies on vel­vet cush­ions lis­ten­ing to the Car­pen­ters and Tony Ben­nett while Dr Meera Pan­dit helps him un­ravel his tor­tured past in small-town Cul­ly­more.

He al­ter­nates be­tween self-ag­gran­dis­ing brag­gado­cio and self-loathing im­be­cil­ity. His al­ter ego, Pops, is the hippest cat at the Mood Indigo Club in the ex­otic won­der­land that was the swing­ing ’ 60s. He is Roger-McCool-Moore in vel­vet trousers.

He is grotesquely en­ter­tain­ing in the way that freaks and so­cial mis­fits can be, but if you met him in a bar you’d soon be slid­ing to­wards the door. De­spite their short­com­ings, you would at least stay for a drink with McCabe’s ear­lier mad­man nar­ra­tors, just to hear them out.

McCool’s re­lent­less ’ 60s ref­er­enc­ing tests the good­will of even the most com­mit­ted hip­ster: the Ronettes, Ray Charles, I’m Back­ing Bri­tain, Haight-Ash­bury, Yuri Ga­garin, Twiggy, Julie Christie, the Troggs, Put a Tiger in Your Tank, To Sir with Love . It goes on, like a sound­track on re­peat. Baby!

McCool has a story to tell, but he doesn’t re­veal his se­crets read­ily. At the crux of his trau­ma­tised past is a se­ries of sad events that took place in Cul­ly­more and the But­lins hol­i­day camp in 1969. They in­volve an ob­ses­sion with Dolores ‘‘ Dolly Mix­tures’’ McCaus­land, ‘‘ that Protes­tant doll, the strap, the brazen hussy’’, who not only drank gin and smoked panatel­las but sang and danced in pub­lic houses.

They also in­volve the be­atific Nige­rian Catholic boy Mar­cus Otoyo, who re-en­acts the lives of the saints and sings like an an­gel. McCool’s fix­a­tion on them both is fil­tered through his ado­les­cent ob­ses­sion with Robert Louis Steven­son’s A Child’s Gar­den of Verses and James Joyce’s A Por­trait of the Artist as a Young Man. His story is a Joycean tale of ‘‘ wounded pride and fallen hope and baf­fled de­sire’’ that has dis­as­trous con­se­quences.

De­spite its retro chic, McCabe is pri­mar­ily in­ter­ested in hold­ing a mir­ror to the present. If the ’ 60s were a pe­riod of un­prece­dented re­bel­lious­ness where the strait­laced con­ser­vatism of sec­tar­ian Ire­land was put to the test, this ‘‘ clean new cen­tury’’ is a world in which peo­ple are patho­log­i­cally in­cu­ri­ous as to the wel­fare of oth­ers. Pri­vacy may be a thing of the past, but so is gos­sip. No­body cares any more and the defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic of this new epoch is a sys­tem­atic, clean-washed numb­ness: a platinum anaes­the­sia in which peo­ple live comfortable lives in gated com­mu­ni­ties glued to plasma TVs.

The Holy City may be a tale told by an idiot, but there is sig­nif­i­cance be­yond its seem­ingly in­dul­gent sur­face. Pops McCool will most likely alien­ate more read­ers than he engages. That is a shame. McCabe re­mains one of the more im­por­tant Ir­ish nov­el­ists writ­ing to­day and, while this may not be his best work, it’s bet­ter than much of what’s on of­fer at the mo­ment. Liam Dav­i­son was the 1999 re­cip­i­ent of the James Joyce Foun­da­tion Sus­pended Sen­tence Award.

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