Patrick McCabe’s books come in bunches. First, the ones nobody has read, including Music on Clinton Street and Carn. Then a trio of successful novels, shortlisted and garlanded: The Butcher Boy, The Dead School and Breakfast on Pluto. Something went wrong then, with the next three books (Mondo Desperado, Emerald Germs of Ireland and Call Me the Breeze) receiving what are politely termed mixed reviews. Worse still: of the last, McCabe complains: “Nobody bloody read it.” This downturn paid dividends, as he was then fired to write Winterwood (2006), a book matched in brilliance in McCabe’s oeuvre only by The Dead School, and which attained the highest accolade achieved by all the best books these days, of failing to get longlisted for the Booker Prize.
If Winterwood – silent and silvery and coldly threatening – was a departure, then McCabe’s new novel The Holy City must be a reparture. It feels as though he’s going through his hoops with this one, with all the usual elements present from what John Banville called McCabe’s “antic black comedy”, from small-town Ireland to popular culture to an idiosyncratic narrative voice thinly veiling unspeakable horrors. Fortunately, it’s a shtick that I have a high tolerance for; and this time we are in the company of “Chris J. McCool – at your service, just call me Pops … refined boulevardier of some distinction”, in his 67th year, bestriding the town of Cullymore in a cloud of Old Spice and clad in “the smartest of neat blue blazers with brightly polished brass buttons, complete with white loafers and razor-creased grey slacks, a Peter Stuyvesant King Size cigarette (the international passport to smoking pleasure!) louchely dawdling between my lips.”
Like most of McCabe’s narrators, McCool is a witty and charming storyteller, and barking mad. Also as usual, the charm (and the madness) masks past trauma, a recurring theme in McCabe’s fiction. The nature of the trauma of course cannot be disclosed here, for it is the destination to which the book leads. Which is not to say that it is the point of The Holy City; the journey is what matters, McCabe viewing his books as exercises in style. Here the style is a comic, meandering one, with McCool punctuating his reminiscences with disturbing punchlines, more unsettling than funny, and without the self-awareness to hide his worst qualities. These are combined with blunt pointers (“my psychotherapist”) and references to the social mores of Ireland then and now, as when he attempts to “provide some background to the reason I insulted my psychotherapist Meera Pandit and called her unwholesome names.”
Not that Meera was what you’d call proper black – not really. Not ‘full-blown’ black, I mean to say. Not Nigerian, for example – ebony – black and shiny the way that Marcus Otoyo was. Gleaming and polished, in that shiny African way. No, Pandit, you see, was a Hindu, not from anywhere near Nigeria, or anywhere else in Africa for that matter. I think from somewhere out near Bangladesh. As a matter of fact, to be fair to old Meera, now that I think of her, she was like something that might have emerged from the sixties herself, with her scarves and her bangles and her floppy Birkenstock sandals.
– You stupid black fucker! was, in fact, what I had said.
Two central elements in the book are present here: Marcus Otoyo, who is key to McCool’s story (and trauma), and the casual racism of the past. This in itself serves a double purpose. It is indicative of McCool’s wider lack of human empathy – his depersonalisation of others (“The Balloon People have arrived!”) is repeatedly shown in the book, a marker of a psychopathic personality. Similarly, Catholics and Protestants in the book regard one another as a lumpen mass, and this matches the racism as a reflection of the changing social attitudes of Ireland in recent decades, and the less welcome changes brought about in tandem (“What exactly was happening to the town of Cullymore?”).
McCabe shirks the bespoke label for his books of “bog gothic,” preferring “the social fantastic” – “People have often commented that everyone in the books is mad or damaged. But you should view them as prisms through which the feelings of society are reflected. These are not naturalistic fictions.” You can say that again.
McCabe’s facility for this type of writing – as he put it of Breakfast on Pluto, “it’s meant to be a small hand-grenade of a book, but a burlesque as well” – can leave the reader thinking that it’s all too easy for him, and that the book is somehow less valuable as a result. And it is true that there is little here which has not been explored in his earlier fiction. But it all fits together so beautifully, and is so entertaining to read even when you can see the author’s fingers on the buttons, that for me there was nothing to forgive. “If your character is repugnant in all respects,” McCabe explained in an interview, “nobody can read it. Having some narrative tricks in this day and age is essential, at least for the first ten pages.” Or, in this case, the first two hundred and ten.