Truth in an idiot’s tale
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.