Patrick McCabe Biography
Nationality: Irish. Born: Clones, County Monaghan, Ireland, 1955. Education: St. Patrick's Training College, Dublin. Career: Since 1980 teacher, Kingsbury Day Special School, London. Awards: Irish Press Hennessy award, 1979, for The Call ; Aer Lingus prize, for The Butcher Boy, 1992.
Music on Clinton Street. Dublin, Raven Arts Press, 1986.
Carn. N.p., Aidan Ellis, 1989; New York, Delta, 1997.
The Butcher Boy. London, Picador, 1992; New York, Fromm International, 1993.
The Dead School. London, Picador, and New York, Dial Press, 1995.
Breakfast on Pluto. New York, HarperFlamingo, 1998.
Mondo Desperado: A Serial Novel. New York, HarperCollins, 1999.
Ulster Final, 1984; Frontiers, 1984; The Adventures of Shay Mouse, 1983; Belfast Days, n.d.; The Outing, n.d.; The Butcher Boy, n.d.
The Butcher Boy (with Neil Jordan). Warner Brothers, 1998.
The Adventures of Shay Mouse: The Mouse from Longford (for children). Dublin, New Island, 1994.
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Patrick McCabe's first two novels, Music on Clinton Street and Carn, garnered him little attention outside his native Ireland, but his third novel, The Butcher Boy, earned him international acclaim, not only making him a celebrity, but also marking him as a representative voice for a new generation of Irish writers. Like the work of Roddy Doyle and Dermot Bolger, McCabe's books express a break with what is normally perceived as the Irish literary tradition. His novels resist both the romantic nationalism of Yeats and the modernist mythologizing of Joyce, and, while they share Doyle's focus on the everyday lives of ordinary Irish citizens, McCabe's characterizations are anything but warmly sentimental. Indeed, McCabe's portrayals have more in common with the grotesques of Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio than they have with the comic vignettes of Doyle's Barrytown trilogy.
Also, McCabe's characters, like those of Doyle, exhibit a fascination with American and British popular culture, being more familiar with comic books and television shows than they are with Irish history. In Carn, the title town's boom era is accompanied by a gradual assimilation of American culture, culminating in the opening of the "tavern-cum-roadhouse," the Turnpike Inn, which is decorated with American flags and portraits of Davy Crockett and John F. Kennedy. But the establishment does not survive when age-old troubles violently resurface in the town. Francie Brady, the eponymous narrator of The Butcher Boy, peppers his story with pop references, often affecting lampoonish accents and phraseologies that accrete into a palpable—but never opaque—barrier between Francie and his stifling environment. Malachy Dudgeon of The Dead School woos his lover by impersonating Jack Nicholson and later chooses the Tubes' hit "White Punks on Dope" as his personal anthem, a telling choice for an effort at self-actualization that ends in addled dissipation. And Breakfast on Pluto 's Patrick "Pussy" Braden has a fascination with pop diva Dusty Springfield, but his dead-on impersonations do nothing to keep British authorities from arresting him as a terrorist. Thus, while McCabe's characters may often be ignorant or at least dismissive of history, they are nevertheless still at its cruel mercy. Their personal fantasies and delusions do not exempt them from history's nightmare.
Critics have sometimes taken McCabe's antic and darkly comic portrayals to be wallowings in absurd futility. And, while it is true that many of his characters make ineffective attempts to rebel against the seemingly predetermined failure of their lives, McCabe's explorations of the interplay of aspiration and circumstance make the final dispositions of his creations almost tragic, instead of being merely pathetic. Francie Brady's dogged innocence and irrepressible humor make him a compelling, even appealing narrator, and the early parts of The Butcher Boy, which portray his relationship with his buddy Joe Purcell, his mother's suicide, and his father's sense of angry hopelessness, evoke much empathy for a boy who seems only to be trying to make the best of an impossible situation. However, as the novel progresses, this empathy finds itself conflicting with an increasing awareness of Francie's violent madness. Despite his clearly psychotic actions, Francie's desperate quest for affection, intimacy, and recognition obviate reactions of complete revulsion. In Breakfast on Pluto, Pussy Braden's seemingly amoral opportunism, which culminates in his becoming a prostitute, and his insistent attention to frivolities amidst the violent political upheaval of London in the 1970s, are both made poignant by his desperate and pervasive longing for simple familial belonging. His transvestite lifestyle may be outlandish, but his dream, which is vividly depicted throughout the novel, is to be accepted by a family with open arms, saying to him, "He's one of ours!"
McCabe's later novels share the structural ploy of being framed by narrators who tell of events in the distant past, often beginning their narrations by foreshadowing the violent climaxes which characterize his books. And it is these foreshadowings which lend an air of inexorability to McCabe's novels, despite their humor. But such inexorability does not make mere victims of McCabe's characters. What dooms them to failure is more than the force of historical circumstance; it is their own failure to truly connect. In The Dead School, two teachers from different generations grow to hate each other over what each perceives is the other's culpability in the destruction of their dreams. Yet their conflict involves much more than a generation gap. Their superficial differences only belie deeper correspondences in the two men, most notably a failure to successfully love a mate. Instead of allowing a connection, however, Malachy Dudgeon and Raphael Bell act out the truism that like repels like, with cataclysmic consequences for both. These deeper correspondences—the failures of love and aspiration—link all of McCabe's characters into a universe of lost souls, and it is a testament to McCabe's aesthetic achievement that he is able to wring both sympathy and laughter from such dark matter.
—Victoria A. Smallman,
updated by J.J. Wylie
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