Just before the violent climax of Patrick McCabe’s novel The Butcher Boy, there’s a short sequence in which the damaged, dangerous young narrator, Francie Brady, pays a visit to the seaside town where his parents spent their honeymoon. His mother and father have been dead for some time – victims of suicide and drink, respectively – and Francie’s happy memories of them are pitifully scarce. His father’s alcoholic nostalgia for his honeymoon stay at the Over the Waves boarding-house has remained with Francie, however, and he likes to imagine his parents ‘lying there together on the pink candlewick bedspread’, ‘thinking of the same things, all the beautiful things in the world’. The landlady soon disabuses him: ‘No better than a pig, the way he disgraced himself here . . . God help the poor woman, she mustn’t have seen him sober a day in their whole honeymoon!’ Unhappier than he was when he set out, Francie heads back to the slaughterhouse where he works. Before he leaves, though, he wanders into a music shop:
Then I saw it and when I did I nearly fainted, I don’t know why I’d seen it plenty of times before. My legs went into legs of sawdust. Trot trot goes the sadeyed ass pulling the cart and away off into the misty green mountains and the blue clouds of far away. And right over the picture there in big black letters EMERALD GEMS OF IRELAND.
Emerald Gems of Ireland is a songbook and this isn’t its first appearance in The Butcher Boy. It’s first seen inside the music case of Philip Nugent, a boy whose family becomes the focus of all Francie’s obsessions and resentments, and whom he hates for befriending his only friend, Joe. Later on, the betrayal seems confirmed when Francie spots a copy of the book in Joe’s room. It matters so much because Francie’s father was a musician who delighted in the kinds of sentimental song collected in Emerald Gems; and his mother, before her suicide, became obsessed by a record of ‘The Butcher Boy’. The songs are a recurring motif in the novel and tie together all the real and imagined rejections Francie has suffered at the hands of his family, of his friends, of society as a whole. Rebuffed yet again after trying to win back Joe’s friendship with a copy of a different songbook, Francie loses his precarious hold on himself, and the consequences are terrible for him and even worse for the unfortunate Mrs Nugent.
Patrick McCabe’s new novel, Emerald Germs of Ireland, takes the same basic premise – an imaginative young man born to nightmarish parents in rural Ireland and growing up to commit horrific crimes patterned on and inadvertently triggered by sentimental songs of the kind collected in Emerald Gems – and parodies it to within an inch of its life. Almost entirely comic, the book has little of the darkness and sadness which make McCabe’s previous novels so powerful as well as so funny; it is also written in a parodically bad prose style which renders the intermittent moments of baroque mawkishness even more inscrutable. Like all of McCabe’s books, Emerald Germs is daring, inventive and often very amusing. But at just under four hundred pages not everyone will appreciate the joke.
Pat McNab, the protagonist, is a shy, ineffectual man of about the same age as Patrick McCabe himself. He has a taste for Macardles Ale and fingers of toast, and lives in a run-down farmhouse just outside Gullytown, a stereotypical village with curtain-twitching neighbours, bumptious schoolteachers, big-handed farmers and gossipy characters hanging around Sullivan’s Select Bar. It seems, however, that Pat is also a serial killer, responsible for the deaths of fifty or more people including his aunt, a teacher, a policeman, three ‘lovely lassies’, a rock musician, a turfman and his ass, a farmer and his sheep, at least one neighbour, his mother, and possibly his father as well. Most of these murders are caused, directly or indirectly, by Pat’s relationship with his mother, a fiercely possessive woman who, ‘before that final day when her son swung a saucepan and pitched Maimie McNab into the black unending pitch of all eternity’, refused to let him go to the pub or join a band.
All this is explained in a short introductory section, after which come 14 chapters (two of them headed ‘Chapter 13’), all named after songs and all purporting to take place in ‘the first 365 days of what might be called Pat McNab’s “post-matricide” year’. Most of them follow a similar scheme, which begins with the arrival of an intrusive stranger asking insinuating questions about the whereabouts of Pat’s mother. The inquisitive visitor then moves in and makes Pat’s life increasingly intolerable, until – usually because of an insult to the memory of his mother – Pat loses his patience and kills him or her in an absurd but appropriate manner. The narrator almost inevitably makes some lyrical, longwinded and sententious remarks, and then the cycle begins again. Not every section ends with a murder: several focus instead on flashbacks or extended hallucinations induced by drugs, poison or blows to the head. Unsurprisingly, McCabe plays constant variations on the book’s fairly simple scheme. One chapter features an extended Sergio Leone-style Mexican sequence, another a musical science-fiction adventure, a third a flashback to the Swinging Sixties; there are also parodies of Tarantino-type thrillers, schoolgirl stories and the execrable 1970s film Love Story, as well as a chapter going back to Pat’s unhappy childhood.
Different accounts of his father’s death and a mid-book chapter that ends with Pat being killed help to reinforce a general suspicion that the whole thing might be taking place inside Pat’s head. Everything is recounted by an anonymous, seemingly omniscient but obviously unreliable third-person voice; and the narration is such a garble of mismatched registers, self-contradictions and pointless circumlocutions that it adds yet another layer of unreality to something which has little concern with verisimilitude in the first place. Ordinary words and phrases frequently appear in quotes – ‘“pop” or “show” tune’, ‘a sense of “warming to his task”’ – as if the narrator is either quoting testimony or is unsure about the right idioms. Stereotypical pop-culture characters speak and behave as if imagined by someone with only the most tenuous grasp of the stereotypes involved; 1960s rockers say things like ‘Hey Pat, man! Choogle on over, yeah?’, while fashionable hit-men speak with the swearing dubbed over. There are ham-fisted literary references (‘Words cannot describe what ensued that day. “The horror” delineated by Conrad in his tale of Congolese insanity would be but an approximation’). Few lines of dialogue end without an exclamation mark, and an amazing number of them end with ‘– ha ha!’ Extravagantly pointless moments litter the text: ‘A shadow the shape of Australia passed across his mother’s face. It was of no significance, having simply been cast by a passing bird outside. But it chilled Pat.’ Things described as indescribable can frequently ‘only be described as’ something else – sometimes within the same sentence. Absurd similes (‘the beam of the moon’s “benevolent light” as a javelin bisecting her ventricles’), otiose adjectives (‘tenebrous shadow play’) and literalised metaphors (‘in literally a nanosecond’) abound. A typical sentence reads:
There can be no describing the state of – perhaps inexcusable! – utter glee in which Pat and his mother (Pat had slipped in unnoticed and gently closed the door behind him) reduced the tormented musician to a helpless mass of unrecognisable pulp in what might be described as an orgy of bloody, frenzied, alternative ‘bebop’ improvisation.
The point of all this is to give the impression that the narrator is comically ill-equipped for the task, eager to impress but shaky on the finer points of decorum. Rather than a ‘narrator’, however, it might make sense to speak of the book having, as David Hayman has suggested of Ulysses, an ‘Arranger’ – ‘something between a persona and a function, somewhere between the narrator and the implied author’. This isn’t an entirely gratuitous comparison: Emerald Germs of Ireland is a more Joycean book than its flip mention of the ‘ineluctable modality of the visible’ might suggest. In the introduction and opening passages of each chapter especially, its style is similar to the punishingly circumlocutory manner of the ‘Eumaeus’ episode in Ulysses; and there’s more than a touch of Bella Cohen – the Darktown brothel-keeper in ‘Circe’ – about the various women, including Mrs McNab herself, who visit hallucinatory humiliations on Pat.
McCabe first deployed this kind of writing in his previous book, Mondo Desperado – a collection of stories which closes with a character ‘collapsing hopelessly at last in a Brobdignagian mass of what can only be described as pulverisingly freckled despair’ – and the new novel could almost be the handiwork of Pats Donaghy, the mother-fixated author of ‘A Kalashnikov for Shamus Doyle’ and ‘The Barntrosna Files’ (‘in which a shy young man is confronted by a series of events which eventually make him face the truth about himself’) who is twice nominated for a prestigious English literary prize in one of the stories in that book. Most of the stories in Mondo Desperado are presented as the compensation fantasies of characters comically unable to fantasise convincingly, and something of this sort is clearly going on in Emerald Germs of Ireland. But Mondo Desperado is also presented as the handiwork of Phildy Hackball – a boozy pulp writer briefly glimpsed ‘astride the TV with the waste-paper basket on his head, triumphantly beating his chest’ – while Emerald Germs of Ireland has no framing devices of this sort to let the uninitiated in on the joke. The result is a weird, free-floating satire, some of it directed at the ludicrousness of Pat’s video and pop-inflected imaginings, the rest at McCabe’s own writing persona.
Emerald Germs of Ireland started out as a series of radio plays which went out on RT Radio 1, and it’s frustrating not to be able to compare the novel with the original broadcasts. The musical themes were probably much more effective on the radio; in the book, however much Pat’s preoccupation with show bands and lounge-singing is emphasised, the musically inspired chapters and interpolated lyrics inevitably seem more of a gimmick. Some of the chapters – ‘Island of Dreams’, ‘Love Story’ and ‘Fly Me to the Moon’ – are pretty tedious, while ‘The Little Drummer Boy’, which details Pat’s maltreatment at the hands of his military father, is too ridiculous to take seriously as an attempt at pathos and too short on humour to work as black comedy. The studied longwindedness becomes irritating after a while, and there are long stretches when, sad to say, the writing is simply not bad enough to sustain the running joke.
On the other hand, it’s hard not to be impressed when a twice Booker-nominated novelist chooses to write descriptions of such brilliantly calculated ineptitude as: ‘The sergeant nodded as a thin river of yolk was released from the unsteady Table Mountain of egg. He smiled as he masticated.’ Uneven, repetitive, overlong, Emerald Germs of Ireland isn’t Patrick McCabe’s best book by any means. But there are just about enough laugh-out-loud moments to justify its worst excesses, and there is something liberating, even strangely uplifting, about the firmness of McCabe’s conviction that good taste is the enemy of art.