Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Patrick McCabe: "The Dead School"

Horslips, in McCabe's 1995 novel, gets a couple of shout-outs as representative both of a send-up of Irish rock in the age of Philo & Thin Lizzy and the band in these pages The Electric Strangers; Jimi Slevin and Peggy's Leg also get a mention as does repeatedly a stereotypical bogman's show The Walton Programme, replaced by what sounds like Gay Byrne on amphetamines, The Terry Krash Show. Lee Templeton's unflagging efforts to recall every mention of H. from every source for Come Back Horslips dot-com can be traced to this very reference to H. And, indirectly, HorsLit as the spin-off for the literati more than the musos? So, ten years at least later, I looked up the citations and, of course, had to read the whole novel again. Here's my take on it for posterity, posted to you-know-where today. By the way, I heard McCabe's newest novel, unread yet by me, Winterwood, may be more near Banville's sort of plot, if not his prose?

Having read, and reviewed for Amazon, The Butcher Boy, Breakfast on Pluto, and Call Me the Breeze, I acknowledge that McCabe keeps plowing deeper along this same furrow: a lyrical narrative voice that tells relentlessly but as if charmingly of horror and madness. A difficult p-o-v to carry off, time and time again. Although few would immediately compare McCabe to his compatriot John Banville with his more middle-class, literate, and repressed Irish taletellers, still both authors strive to depict men at war within themselves, scarred by an often adolescent or boyhood experience that they can never escape. Banville prefers nuance, McCabe selects vertigo.

I had read this a decade ago but remembered little of it. I thought that I had not liked it that much compared to Butch Boy or the later B on P. I gave DS another chance, and find that the gradual onset of "an early retirement from both the schoolroom and sanity" in both Raphael Bell and Malachy Dudgeon is handled at its best in poignant and restrained fashion. The angelic contrast obvious in the names I leave to the lit crit gang to decipher. But, it's not as formulaic as I feared. For example, as Malachy haunts the Grand Canal, under a sky of lead and a city the color of dishwater, he stands near the bench with its statue of Patrick Kavanagh. The canal, however, clogged with green scum, reveals none of the sylvan peace that comforted McCabe's Ulster-born predecessor. Similarly, Malachy in his collapsing relationship with Marion shows surprising moments-- given that this is a McCabe novel-- of isolation and the need for consoling words that cannot come to Malachy's lips, even as he tries to make amends and seek comfort from his girlfriend.

Raphael and Malachy share trauma rooted in a childhood moment of a parent's revelation to their son. One is intentionally attempted and one is witnessed at secondhand. Without giving away the scenes or the plot, these vignettes show again McCabe's skill at giving the reader real unfeigned agony and heartache beneath the rather smirking, smart-aleck tone that dominates the omniscient narrator's own voice as the tale is told, as if to another group of sniggering students.

The trouble is that as troubles accumulate in 1970s Ireland, and ones that have far less directly to do with the Troubles in the North and more with the collapse of Catholic and patriotic ideologies in the Republic, their sheer weight tends to weary the reader about 60% of the way through the book. This is three hundred pages of practically no likeable characters, despite the blurb above on Amazon. Marie Evans as drawn here appears all too familiar as an exemplar of the Mary Robinson type of figure who would lead the transformation of Ireland-- the children replace a trip to Kilmainham Jail to honor the 1916 martyr-rebels with a day out at Waterword theme park. But, Raphael's hatred for Evans and the Terry Krash show and all the harbingers of today's secularizing Ireland would have gained intensity if they did not have hundreds of pages to burn through in their rage. Malachy's stint as a Withnail and I type of layabout in London again gets plaudits in its portrayal, but the detail is both too vague and too mundane for the years to register fully. I know part of this diffusion for both protagonists is their own mental decay, but this long slide downhill, unrelieved by much humor or relief, adds up to a wearisome trudge through the cobwebs of both men's vacant skulls.

I fail to find the whimsical light touch in this narrative, which stacks depressingly a series of increasingly miserable setbacks upon its frail schoolteacher pair. The narrator's voice from the start stays stoic and resigned. Fatalism pervades the book. True, a critique of Irish culture emerges, but no respite from the malaise arrives.

While the book probes deep into the damaged psyches of both men, and their antagonisms against each other and against the system that has failed them in a liberalizing society, these relevant and sociologically stimulating points are drawn out in this fiction to near tedium. As a portrait of a changing Irish psyche under the onslaught of the 60s and 70s, the novel has merit. But as a gripping read, more than Butcher Boy and Breakfast on Pluto-- which for all their verve also followed rather predictable arcs akin to this novel-- The Dead School offers a place few may care to seek out even for a first read, unless enamored of every word McCabe has published. The talent remains, but the energy dissipates in a narrative that amounts to entrapment within the imploded mind. These labyrinths, as Beckett, Flann O'Brien, William Burroughs, Celine, Kafka and Philip K. Dick all found, challenge even the most imaginative fantasists when stretched into full-length novels.

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