Plotty, vi­o­lent and a bit too spelled-out

HEART­LAND PA­TRICK Mc­CABE New Is­land Books, 304pp, ¤13.95

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS - JONATHAN McALOON

A group of old friends con­gre­gate in a mid­lands bar, seek­ing vengeance. They call them­selves the “Killing Floor Hom­bres”. WW Mon­roe, a shady en­tre­pre­neur who gave them work, has hanged him­self af­ter two or­phan boys he adopted stole his money. One of these, the nar­ra­tor Ray “Ringo” Wade, seems to have be­trayed his ac­com­plice Jody at the last mo­ment and fled; he watches con­cealed in the rafters as his friend is beaten, then taken out to a shed to be killed.

In nov­els such as The Holy City, Win­ter­wood, and Butcher Boy, Pa­trick Mc­Cabe has es­tab­lished him­self as Co Mon­aghan’s mas­ter of gothic. He favours talk­a­tive, in­gra­ti­at­ing but re­pel­lent voices that lead you away from the scene of their crimes just as they root you there. In Heart­land, char­ac­ters talk them­selves out of trauma. While wait­ing for a mem­ber of their group who will per­form the act of killing, the Hom­bres anaes­thetise them­selves by rem­i­nisc­ing, ar­gu­ing, mono­logu­ing and get­ting drunk. In a par­al­lel nar­ra­tive, Ray, now a va­grant al­co­holic, un­able to shed his guilt for var­i­ous be­tray­als, keeps a jour­nal at the rec­om­men­da­tion of a priest. It is a con­fes­sion in the clas­sic mode. “I hope you be­lieve me,” he says while ac­knowl­edg­ing a cer­tain amount of un­re­li­a­bil­ity: “with my un­for­tu­nate his­tory of al­co­hol abuse, [I] may well have be­come prone to a de­gree of self-delu­sion”. But just like those who want him dead, Ray would rather avoid the thing at hand than di­rectly con­front it.

Me­nac­ing­pat­ter

One of the many sto­ries within sto­ries in this book gets called “a lit­tle camp­fire yarn” by its teller; this de­scribes Heart­land it­self. At its best, the book can be­come a sort of Beck­et­tian Reser­voir Dogs. Bound to­gether by time and crime, the men in the bar start to re­veal bits of them­selves and their as­so­ciates in one com­mu­nal sin­is­ter past, which is wrought with a folk­loric strain of haunt­ing and in­ex­pli­ca­ble hap­pen­ing. It is hard-boiled: full of men­ac­ing pat­ter and gold teeth glint­ing in the moon­light.

The prose fram­ing these mono­logues, though, can be as rough and ready as the char­ac­ters it de­scribes. When peo­ple shake, they shake “like a leaf”; when they prowl, they prowl “like a pan­ther”. At the very be­gin­ning, two char­ac­ters are “baby-faced” within five pages of each other. Later, a woman sings “like some­one pos­sessed”, then Jody’s box­ing trainer is de­picted “pum­melling the air like a man pos­sessed”, then Jody, in the ring, is seen “re­peat­ing to him­self like some­one pos­sessed”, in the space of 10 pages. The one who sings like some­one pos­sessed later has sex “like some­one pos­sessed”. But then, yarns rely on the rhythm of sec­ond-hand say­ings and im­ages. The English nov­el­ist Ni­cola Barker has proven over a ca­reer al­most as long as Mc­Cabe’s that the yarn – bristling as it is with cliche – is ca­pa­ble of in­ge­nu­ity and so­phis­ti­ca­tion on the level of work by the most el­e­vated prose stylists.

Mc­Cabe has writ­ten 11 nov­els be­fore Heart­land, two of which have been Booker-nom­i­nated. He’s also won this pa­per’s Ir­ish Lit­er­a­ture Prize. So it is per­haps strange that a book with so much scope for gutsy joys can feel un­sat­is­fy­ing. Tech­ni­cal mas­tery feels oddly lack­ing. “Why do you have to sing that?” says Jody, hear­ing a song about two or­phans. We un­der­stand why this would up­set him, but Ray lays the sig­nif­i­cance on thick: “it re­minded him of the old days in White­rock [or­phan­age]”. Fol­low­ing a tense chap­ter, Ray starts bab­bling about how tense he is. Many well-placed mo­ments, some of real sig­nif­i­cance, are dis­pelled by their be­ing voiced.

And con­sid­er­ing we learn so much about the prospec­tive killers through their bar ram­blings, we are given com­par­a­tively lit­tle about the novel’s cen­tral be­trayal. We know that, hav­ing been sub­ject to dif­fer­ent forms of abuse at their or­phan­age, Ray and Jody were taken in by WW Mon­roe, only for Jody to be con­scripted into bare-knuckle box­ing. But we don’t know enough about the re­la­tion­ship to fully ex­plain Ray’s be­trayal of WW. We know about how Ray has been deal­ing with his sup­posed be­trayal of Jody, but we don’t re­ally know why or even how he en­acted this be­trayal. As the book is plotty and vi­o­lent, it breeds a yearn­ing for sat­is­fac­tion in two senses: both grat­i­fi­ca­tion of de­sires and come­up­pance for deeds. This be­comes nec­es­sary for bal­ance; omis­sion feels like a wrong choice – too sub­tle, in the end, for a larger-than-life book. And as Ray’s con­fes­sion never truly be­comes a con­fes­sion, we are de­prived of con­fes­sion’s nec­es­sary com­ple­ment. We have no way of de­cid­ing whether to for­give.

Tech­ni­cal mas­tery feels oddly lack­ing in Pa­trick Mc­Cabe’s lat­est

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