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Winterwood
By Patrick McCabe
(Bloomsbury, £12.99 stg, H/B)

Pat McCabe has a thing about infidelity – female infidelity, specifically. If I am interpreting his new fictional creation correctly, the reason certain men grow up to be paedophiles and child-murders is because these gentle souls were cruelly done over by their first loves, wives or girlfriends. The background to these betrayals seems entirely arbitrary, and the men involved did little to precipitate them; or, if they were in some small way culpable (hints of short-temperedness and domestic violence) they in no way deserved the dreadful fates that befell them, with these faithless, flighty bitches doing the dirty on them. It’s just what these jades and jezebels do: leave you for someone richer, more successful, less boring. While not completely up to speed with the current research data into these matters, such a singular view does strike this writer as a rather novel (or certainly novelistic) explanation for all that defiling of innocence, bloodshed, drowning and general mayhem. But that’s what’s at the bottom of it all, it seems, and it is passed down from generation to generation.

Redmond Hatch is a happily-married, one-woman-man, Dublin-based journalist, who, in the early 1980s, returns to his native Slievanageeha, a mountain valley somewhere in the midlands, where, it is clearly implied, they have until relatively recently being eating each other alive, when not bludgeoning each other to death (and that’s just the inbred home life). There to write an article on local folklore, he becomes friendly with Ned Strange, fiddler and raconteur, also known as Auld Pappie. With the arrival of shopping centres, chain pubs and satellite TV, rural Ireland is being catapulted into the 20th century, and Pappie Strange has ingratiated himself into popularity with local parents, who see his music, stories and ceilidhs as a valuable repository for keeping their children in touch with a fast vanishing past.

 

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On subsequent poteen-soaked visits to Ned’s decrepit cabin, ostensibly to work on a planned memoir of this rough-hewn but apparently harmless, larger-than-life character, Redmond comes to know a different Strange, one who claims to have murdered his first love for abandoning him for a better catch, who chides that Redmond's father beat his mother into a brain haemorrhage, and who hints that Redmond's Uncle Florian, another dab hand at the fiddle, wasn’t all he was cracked up to be.

Then Redmond loses his job, and moves to London with his adored wife Catherine, whom he calls ‘sugar lips’, in search of work. They have a baby, Imogen, the apple of Redmond’s eye. But when Catherine commits adultery – with a Maltese taxi-driver yet! – his world collapses. They separate, with Catherine and Immy returning to Dublin, making a new, more stable life with dependable financier Ivan. Redmond fakes suicide on the beach in Bournemouth, and follows with a new identity as Dominic Tiernan.

Back in Dublin, he learns with disgust of Strange's sexual assault and murder of a Slievenageeha boy, and of how he was subsequently found hanged in his prison cell. Living in hostels and drinking heavily, the destitute Redmond/Dominic begins to be haunted by apparitions of Auld Pappie, an incubus who ultimately sexually assaults him. A photograph Pappie leaves of Redmond as a child confirms that Redmond himself was abused by his own Uncle Florian.

The rest of the novel becomes a chase tale, for Auld Pappie's ghost pursues our narrator, while Redmond stalks Catherine and Immy, eventually kidnapping one, then the other, the implication being that he murders them.

All of this hellish second-half takes place against the entirely unconvincing backdrop of ‘Dominic’s’ reinvention of himself as a successful RTE documentary producer and director, and blissful second marriage to pushy American media diva Casey Breslin. Needless to relate, she winds up cheating on him too with an old flame (incidentally while he’s away in London collecting an award for his film on Slievanageeha, These Are My Mountains). But hey, that’s just what these shameless hussies do to a bloke, isn’t it?

‘Dominic’, now in his 60’s, gets out of RTE as fast as he can, and into a job as a taxi-driver, apparently without ever encountering any of his ex-colleagues in his travels, or any of his new workmates knowing what he did before. (How many ex-RTE television producers do you know who are now Dublin cab-drivers?) There is increasing identification between Red and Ned, until, in a neat twist, Auld Pappie Strange takes over the narration of the last few pages of the story.

There has been a feeling abroad for some time that Patrick McCabe is a one-book writer. And what a book it was, The Butcher Boy confronting the casual viciousness of that bleak, repressed inheritance of institutionalised church/state-sponsored cruelty, by filtering it through a uniquely macabre sensibility which, in the demented but damaged voice of Francie Brady, gave birth to one of the most enduringly memorable characters in post-war Irish fiction. Breakfast on Pluto wasn’t bad either. But with the relatively light-weight Emerald Germs of Ireland and Mondo Desperado, the formula was wearing thin and the rot was setting in. By the time Call Me The Breeze appeared five years ago, McCabe’s so-called ‘bog gothic’, small town strut was a self-referential cult, appealing only to hardcore fans. Winterwood does little to arrest this impression. What it does do is give us cause to reflect that, when you strip back the glossy veneer, maybe the prosperous new Ireland isn’t all that different from the old atavistic version, and the more we change, the more we stay the same. Particularly when it comes to always having a woman to blame.

First published in The Sunday Independent

 



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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