When Patrick McCabe’s third book, The Butcher Boy, was published, in 1992, its effect on Irish fiction was not unlike the impact The Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks had on popular music. Though set in the early 1960s, the novel, like A Clockwork Orange before it, seemed closer to a proto- punk artefact than a literary phenomenon. Its publication represented a new year zero in Irish writing. Almost every subsequent small-town Hiberno coming-of-age novel has been branded by its influence.
Foremost among the book’s attributes was its unforgettable first-person narrative voice. The protagonist, Francie Brady, spoke and thought in a delinquent stream of consciousness undercut by an awful sense of hurt. That voice was so singular it became synonymous with McCabe’s prose style, developed and expanded over subsequent novels such as The Dead School, Breakfast On Pluto, Winterwood and The Stray Sod Country: Francie as the father of the man.
Who gives a shit about careers? I don’t know how that ever started anyway, and I’m kind of glad that it has collapsed. Somehow I got in the middle of it, got lucky a couple of times and then it went back to the way it was
Now, after an interlude of 27 years and 10 more books, McCabe is about to publish a sequel to The Butcher Boy entitled The Big Yaroo. As we join him, Francie Brady is well into his third act, having spent most of his life in a psychiatric ward. Nothing has changed, yet everything has changed. For all its innate black humour and irreverence, for all its preoccupations with 1960s trivia and pop culture riffs, the new book is infused with an overwhelming sense of loss, of the toll time has taken on the soul. For the author, now 64, the stakes are high: he’s returning to the character that made his name.
“I thought, y’know, ‘I’m not f**kin’ skirting this, not any more’,” McCabe says, sitting over coffee in a Dublin hotel bar on a warm September day. “Some books don’t work and some do. It’s usually down to whether you went in deep enough or not. Sometimes, depending on what way your life is going, things can come between you and it. You could be drinking too much. You could be drinking too little. Sometimes you can convince yourself you’re there, it feels like you’re there, but you’re not, it’s only maybe later that you see. But you never take it for granted. And the world has changed so much, literary-wise. We’re not really into careers any more. Who gives a shit about careers? I don’t know how that ever started anyway, and I’m kind of glad that it has collapsed. Somehow I got in the middle of it, got lucky a couple of times and then it went back to the way it was.”
As McCabe admits, the most effective way of choking the imagination might be to saddle it with the burden of the rent.
“Well, that’s what really began to get on my nerves,” he responds. “I don’t know if you ever had double maths when you were at school. Monday morning, I still remember that awful f**kin’ sick feeling in the pit of your stomach, that it was going to go on for three hours. That’s what writing started to feel like for me. And I thought, ‘I’m gonna have to address this. Why are you writing in the first place? Are you writing to keep up your reputation, are you writing to impress your peers, what the f**k are you doing it for?’”
When was this?
I was doing drafts of The Big Yaroo, and it was very biblical, philosophy-orientated, and as soon as the grandchild came along, all we’d ever talk about was superheroes and Korky the Cat
“Ah, maybe around the [economic] crash. Something happened after that. You started to realise it’s all being judged now by finance. There’s a glacial shift. And what I found was, I was now writing for the reason I wrote in the first place. Which was a nice thing to find, actually. That’s where I’m at now. Any artist worth their salt will go through periods like that. I’m glad it happened. But it was concurrent with personal bereavements, a lot of things together.
“When you get to the early 60s,” he continues, “you’re kind of f**kin’ glad to be there. We’d have known plenty of people who pushed it hard and for one reason or another are not around now – or some who didn’t and are not around now anyway – and now I’ve a couple of grandchildren. That’s an interesting one. I’d gone through all these things with that Francie Brady character – and it was an autobiography really, as I’m sure you well know – but I was doing drafts [of The Big Yaroo] and it was very biblical, philosophy-orientated, and as soon as the grandchild came along, all we’d ever talk about was superheroes and Korky the Cat. The sheer abandon of the child was enough for me, going on these swimming expeditions and walks . . . It’s very simple: I’ve been through every philosophy and everything, and I just don’t care. It’s a bit like what [Patrick] Kavanagh got to probably around his mid-50s.”
But if that feeling goes the wrong way, it skews into despair.
“Oh absolutely it does! But I’ve kind of been there. Not that I was in a very bad state or anything. I was just kind of . . . sad. That’s why I say the book is sad. It’s bereft. Another aspect of this journey: Margot’s [McCabe’s wife of almost 40 years] father got Alzheimer’s, he was like a father to me, and there’s a slow-burning awful sadness that goes with it, a soul being erased. So it went to these places, the statue of the Virgin Mary, religion fading, all these psychic moorings that are gone. And in a way, once I accepted that, this not-caring thing seemed to be important to me. I just wrote it and told nobody about it, wasn’t even sure if it was worth anybody looking at it, did a few drafts of it, and I saw all this comic stuff was coming up, and that gave the style of it.”
For all its Zen-absurdism, the novel is coloured with a sense of dismay, a sort of cultural disillusion, the feeling that old certainties such as history and truth don’t matter any more. Some might call it the postmodern scourge. Except, for all the confusion and fragmentation, Francie Brady seems to be surfing on it.
“Well, I think he’s kind of figuring it out in so far as I’ve figured it out: you can debase truth, destroy the established churches, do whatever the f**k you like, but there’s something that sustains me, I don’t know what you would call it, anarcho-whatever. I suppose if there was any core to The Butcher Boy it’s that the doctor says, ‘Next week your solitary finishes’, and Francie laughs and says, ‘How can your solitary finish?’.
“Not every book would mean the same to me as this one and The Butcher Boy, and it’s what I was trying to admit to you there, in that it was a big wound to open, not just my own internal investigations, but what you were touching on: losing something that was fixed. I’m not talking about traditional Catholicism necessarily, but I’m not not talking about it either. I’m talking about all the manifestations of it written into your DNA, to have that kind of erased, or to be told it means nothing, well, what the f**k does mean anything? If your psyche or your soul is surplus to requirements, how do you respond? You can respond in two ways, one is despair and the other is a kind of guerilla warfare.”
In that spirit of rebellion and renewal, have any of the younger Irish writers who’ve emerged over the past decade caught his eye?
McCabe was born and reared in Border towns, but his real subject, he maintains, has always been psychic rather than geographical partitionism
“I think there’s definitely a movement of some kind. Kevin Barry’s an absolute star. I was on the [International Impac Dublin Literary Award] jury for City of Bohane, and he walked away with it. I did a reading recently with Nicole Flattery and Danny Denton, and I got on like a house on fire with them, Nicole Flattery particularly. I wrote to her actually, and said her stories reminded me of the Alan J Pakula movies of the 1970s, The Parallax View and Klute. A lot of garage forecourts and surveillance cameras and car parks. And what she wrote back was, ‘That’s really curious, my favourite movie is The Conversation.’ I thought that was really interesting.”
McCabe was born and reared in Border towns, and his work is undeniably informed by a sort of paranoid heartlands aesthetic, but he’s reluctant to be drawn on the subject of backstop politics. His real subject, he maintains, has always been psychic rather than geographical partitionism.
“I always felt that the Border, from a writing point of view, hauled you back to the social realist world,” he maintains. “There are far bigger borders that I’m concerned with, and I have nothing to add to current commentators who have parsed it and analysed it and turned it upside down. Only last week in The Irish Times, John Horgan revealed that in 1958 there had been a secret meeting between Winston Churchill and Éamon de Valera and Frank Aiken which wasn’t documented, there were no civil servants present, there’s no archive of this except one document that they found, which gave rise to this article.
“The business of the meeting was for Éamon de Valera, in his last throe as taoiseach, to offer to Winston Churchill and the British establishment a united Ireland in the Commonwealth under the Queen of England. That’s fact. If you’d told me that in the 1970s I wouldn’t have believed it.
“If you’d said it to my father in 1958 he would’ve fainted. But de Valera was an extremely Machiavellian and brilliant politician, he thought he might be able to get this over the line. But the British rejected it. And the only reason I mention it is, if that was kept hidden – and this isn’t conspiracy theory, they just didn’t mention it – what do we not have access to now, in terms of British policy? Unless this is a break with history. But it could be. Because what we’ve just described . . .”
Leads us to conclude that even history isn’t fixed.
The Big Yaroo is published by New Island Books