Thursday, December 20, 2007

Patrick McCabe's "Winterwood" Book Review

This is the fifth novel I've read of his; you can find my reviews of "The Dead School," "The Butcher Boy," "Breakfast on Pluto," and "Call Me the Breeze" on Amazon US. By now, long into a career that has earned McCabe acclaim, his protagonist Redmond Hatch fits a familiar pattern of a steady decline from middle-class suburban happiness, marital bliss, and contemporary creature comforts. By now, it becomes apparent that "Winterwood" repeats the narrative arc, and defamiliarizing storytelling twists, that chart the decay of a mind, an erosion of ethics, and a collapse into violence. All these characterize McCabe's fiction: he excels at bringing you within a couple of hundred pages from stability into chaos, often channelled from a disorientingly casual, knowing, and comforting voice that takes you into its confidence only to relate escalating tales of mayhem and murder.

The reviews posted on Amazon US practically gave away the entire plot. Perhaps, given the trajectory of McCabe's sorrowful taletellers, this may not spoil any surprises. By the eighties, a third of the way through the book's pages, I saw the end coming, and the rest of the book, as they say, was all downhill. So, what kept me reading this grim account? McCabe's best quality remains his diabolically intimate, insinuatingly composed conversational style. It's as if the Archfiend took you into his parlor for a fireside chat.

However, few elements stand out for their individually rendered scene-setting, or their particular turns of phrase. The effect of such novels by McCabe accumulates gradually. They can be confusing; more than once I had to check chronology or casual asides that, in giving or withholding key details, otherwise would have left a casual reader bewildered. Although I wished for more about the promising clash of mountainy men and Slievenageeha Lidl (the name sums up not only the superstore but the juxtaposition that increasingly mars modern Ireland), the societal changes, well-evoked in a couple of quick paragraphs about the unceasing traffic of today's Rathfarnham and the shopping mall-with-casino that towers over the once-moribund valley of the author's childhood sum it up, I suppose, enough for McCabe. I have always been attracted by his male misfits, who find recourse to assault as their tender spouses turn adulterers and their parents and relatives (a bit too predictably by now, as in so much of Irish fiction alas based on fact the past few decades) turn molesters. McCabe understands the disintegration of the hapless figure who cannot withstand the impact of early deceit, and how childhood's shadows stretch across the twentieth century into our own frenetic age.

So, this novel, while strong in the manner of earlier novels, does follow this same path. It is McCabe's direction for his imagination to run wild within the tracks of insanity that he loves his characters to follow. He does, by now in his fifties, show his command of such themes. Yet, I do wish he could step aside from the twisted creatures he creates so delicately. You flinch when reading his stories. He doubtless would have it no other way, but after the fifth such encounter with these dark voices, I hesitate to return to another Irish gothic cry from the depths of evil.

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