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