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Poguemahone by Patrick McCabe: Lacks wit or grace to fire the form

Sadly there is neither the wit nor the depth to sustain 600 pages of free-form prose

Patrick McCabe: The characters do not feel drawn with much depth or humanity, so why should we care?
Author: Patrick McCabe
ISBN-13: 978-1800181113
Publisher: Unbound
Guideline Price: £20

The literary hooves of Patrick McCabe approaching with a new work always gives a frisson of fear and excitement. What will he turn up with now? The next McCabe novel might stagger, stumble or even pull up lame, but if it hits its stride, like The Butcher Boy, it never touches the ground.

McCabe has always seemed the sporting sort – a fine handicapper of his own books – which is apparent here, in his 14th novel, with his decision to carry the weight of 600-plus pages in a kind of free-form prose. This might be to your taste. This reader found little pleasure in it, though, and by the end found it infuriating, with its title chiming in the mind for all the wrong reasons.

Dan Fogarty is an Irish man in England, and it appears he is looking after his sister Una, who suffers from dementia, in a care home in Margate. What follows is a cascade of reminiscences from these characters and others from the Irish diaspora in London, stretching across decades (from 1950s Soho swing to drug-dripping squats in 1970s Kilburn), filled out by a cast of unintentionally risible sorts, who turn up, tune in and drop out, with little register, man.

For many of us, The Butcher Boy will likely remain the precious jar that captured the firefly of McCabe's talent

Poguemahone is an achievement for the sheer effort of creating this waterfall of words, and to stick with its format, which I’m sure had McCabe questioning himself in the process. But a novel idea does not always give birth to novel expression, and a step back in style is sometimes required to appreciate the beauty of forceful writing; the book’s chaos leads to confusion for the reader, too, not complexity.


Flights of fancy

There is the expected McCabe combination of linguistic flights of fancy, doses of the supernatural and the thunderclaps of vernacular weighted with the mists of the old country. Yet the writing never reaches the hoped-for levels of ingenuity, wit or grace to fire the form. Discordant voices are fine if the language elegantly spins and wheels, but when it feels like one-note writing the riff becomes boring and reads like a weak Beckett monologue delivered from the bog by way of NW6.

The characters do not feel drawn with much depth or humanity, so why should we care? This fault is partly down to Poguemahone’s structure – free-form prose does not give the writer, or reader, much chance to chew the cud – but there are other reasons. Too often the book lazily resorts to flinty flips back to “blessed oul Oireland” by these cliched exiled ruins.

The never-ending references to 1960s and ’70s pop culture also become tiresome, relevant only to those of a certain vintage: On the Buses, Mott the Hoople, Arthur Brown; McCabe even passes off Shuggie Otis as a character. The wavy-gravy flashback rollercoaster soon exasperates the reader as it dips back from charging at the fantastical to find itself stuck in the maudlin. Plus, when you get to the novel’s supposed pay-off, it feels middlin’ for the mileage you’ve put in.

Making your excuses

Poguemahone is stuffed with rambles of blather; if you were on the receiving end of something similar at a Pogues tribute night in Cricklewood from some old boring soak with the green-tinted glasses on, you’d be drinking up and making your excuses to leave. You’re just expecting that bowsie Behan to be mentioned any minute, and…oh.

As a McCabe fan I had high hopes: I read Poguemahone in small chunks, in large chunks, intermittently, and still could not bring myself to care for it. If it was funny you might cut it some slack, but there’s little humour here; its approach to mental illness is also debatable.

Thirty years have passed since The Butcher Boy boinged into our consciousness – a novel that still reverberates across the Irish literary landscape. For many of us it will likely remain the precious jar that captured the firefly of McCabe’s talent. Upon closing this book I thought of a line from Don DeLillo’s Mao II: “I’m a sentence-maker, like a donut-maker only slower.” Poguemahone, sadly, is one huge donut.