During this century small town and village life in Ireland hasn’t lacked for literary detraction and exposé. In fiction the line begins with George Moore; his short stories, collected in The Untilled Field (1903), depict monotonous and stunted lives where the imaginative are stifled by entrenched convention and a mean and rigid form of Catholicism, while the talented or spirited have little choice but to knuckle under or get out. For Moore, provincial life was a worst case of what was wrong with Ireland as a whole. In his three-volume send-up of the Literary Revival, Hail and Farewell (1911–1914), which paradoxically is one of the ornaments of the Revival, he called Ireland the place where dreams go unfulfilled and ambitions are blighted.
After Brinsley MacNamara’s wonderfully named The Valley of the Squinting Windows (1919) was published, a novel about a schoolteacher who is ruined for befriending an unwed mother, MacNamara’s father lost his teaching job in the midlands community where the story is set, and sundry copies of the book—his son’s first—were ceremoniously burnt in the town square. In fiction to follow by O’Connor and O’Flaherty, O’Faolain and McGahern, and even by William Trevor, for example, his much anthologized “The Ballroom of Romance,” emphasis continued on nay-saying and thwarting by parent, priest, policeman, and tyrannical custom, the last often using the powerful sanction of social shaming to defeat the young and the passionate and to stop life dead in rutted tracks.
Not least of the satisfactions of the recent Irish film The Playboys was to see this long tradition of moral blight in the Irish hinterland challenged and, to a degree, defeated. The beautiful and clever heroine, a skillful tailor and dressmaker living right by the main village square, with an infant born out of wedlock for all to see, refuses to name her brutal seducer, who by custom should make an “honest” woman of her by marriage. The neighbors put up with this scandal, not ever seeming to mind. On the other hand, the local priest is hot for her to wed the town police constable, played in a manner both pathetic and menacing by Albert Finney, and he in fact, though old enough to be her father, is the father of her child. An unthinkable union is avoided when the heroine, who has fallen in love with one of the visiting players in a troupe performing under canvas on the square, goes off with him on his motorbike, riding pillion with her babe in her arms toward a surely less trammeled if still undefined future life. That is, provided they don’t turn over in the road.
Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy, its title inspired by a weird Irish ballad about a pregnant girl who hanged herself and the “boy” who found her and cut her down, is set in a place like Clones (County Monaghan), the northern border community where McCabe grew up. This much discussed and prize-winning novel is full of social shaming but is full also of so many appalling other things—family breakdown, suicide, alcoholism, a priest’s sexual abuse of a male child, hallucination, psychosis, and murder, to make a short list—that it seems less an effort to go on with the tradition under scrutiny than to blow it to smithereens or burn it out in one spectacular gothic auto-da-fé.
In a brilliant technical display McCabe casts his narrative as a confessional monologue delivered by a mad boy, Francie Brady, in hiding “on account of what I done on Mrs. Nugent.” But it is also “twenty or thirty or forty years ago” that he “done” it, when JFK was still alive and Ireland’s uncrowned king, and this double focus is skillfully maintained throughout.
The literary line that McCabe is working off is rather complicated. We could begin with the horrific melodrama and “sick” violence of the Fifties and Sixties American comic books of which both Francie and McCabe are professedly keen fans. A little farther back there is the gothic narrative archetype called “the confessions of a madman” as worked by Poe and Dickens for the thrill of it and occasionally adapted to more soulful purposes by a writer like Dostoevsky. His chapter “Stavrogin’s Confession,” from The Possessed, a confession of pedophilia or child rape in the St. Petersburg public baths, is certainly ancestral to Nabokov’s Lolita, and no one will get through The Butcher Boy without thinking of Lolita at least occasionally. There is a similar mixing of horror and hilarity.
Also, the crazier each narrator gets, the keener an observer he becomes of the currents and pulsations of craziness in the ordinary life around him. What Lolita and The Butcher Boy have in common is that the subject of each—in Nabokov an obsessive, corrupting, and destroying passion, in McCabe, the psychic and moral disintegration of a child forced to suffer through and witness every stage of the collapse of his parents’ relationship into alcoholism and madness—is carried farther than anyone previous to their books could have believed possible.
Francie’s father, Benny Brady, a failed trumpet player, did time in a Belfast orphanage from age seven and can’t forgive anyone, including himself, for his suffering and humiliation. He is destroying his wife by degrees. Once, after his father comes home late from the Tower pub, Francie listens from the upstairs landing:
She mustn’t have said anything for the next thing he was off into the speech about his father’s leaving them when he was seven and how nobody understood him he said she lost interest in his music long ago and she didn’t care it wasn’t his fault she was the way she was then he said she was mad like all the Magees, lying about the house from the day they married never did a hand’s turn why wouldn’t he go to the pubs she had never made a dinner for him in his life?
Something else broke crockery or something and then Ma was crying: Don’t blame me because you can’t face the truth about yourself, any chances you had you drank them away!
It went on a long time I was just standing there listening to it all I knew I should have gone down but that’s no use now is it I didn’t did I?… I was trying to listen to the cars going by on the Newtown Road and saying to myself: I can’t hear anything in the kitchen now it must be all over.
But it wasn’t all over and when I stopped listening to the cars I’d hear him: God’s curse the fucking day I ever set eyes on you!
After this tirade she is off to the “garage”—Francie’s name for the local asylum—in a state of nervous breakdown. After Benny ruins a Christmas party for her brother, Alo, to which Mrs. Brady has pinned her pathetic hopes of recovering status, she drowns herself in the town lake.
Francie becomes prey to hallucinations, especially auditory ones in which he hears various townspeople talk out loud about his family and its problems. Some time after the mother’s suicide the father dies as well, and is horrible in decay, sitting upright in the living room in silent converse with his now totally demented son.
But why does Francie take his suffering out on Mrs. Nugent? Even in madness there is reason. Mrs. Nugent gets “done” not because the Nugent family with their model boy, Philip, their cozy home, cottage piano, wellstocked refrigerator, and working TV epitomize the decent Irish middle-class family and Catholic values from which Francie is forever barred; or even because Philip took Joe Purcell, Francie’s only friend, away from him; but really because of a remark that Mrs. “Nooge” made about the Bradys in a moment of rage. She said that they were pigs and that people like them would always be pigs.
The Butcher Boy has several flaws which come to light once the shock of its Grand Guignol sensationalism wears off. One is Francie’s sentimentality. Not only is he sweet to all little kids but he goes all mushy fantasizing about his parents’ honeymoon at a small hotel on the Donegal coast. It is when he visits the scene and digs out of the elderly lady proprietor the truth that Dad had been drunk and abusive to Mum even then that he goes right off the rails. Killing Mrs. Nugent, whose big bosom reminds him of how psychologically malnourished he feels, and shoving her corpse under the hog offal that he trundles around town in his employment at the local slaughterhouse, is somehow to be compensation for having to feel bad about what he learned in Donegal I wish I were surer here that McCabe sees what Francie does not, that insofar as he punishes other people for feeling bad himself, he is only repeating his father’s beastliness.
Another problem is that Francie has too much charm—partly charm in the usual sense and partly an almost hypnotic power to wreak his ill will on his victims, customarily the Nugent bunch, whether he is merely separating young Phil from portable property like his comics collection, or butchering his mother. Earlier, in the religious reform school to which he is sent until he becomes too hot to handle, he charms the head priest into believing that he regularly chats up various dead saints, and charms Father Sullivan the pedophile into making him a coddled favorite. At the school no one ever is on to him and chez Nugent no one ever hits or hurts back even though he is on his way to doing them all in.
To highlight what is happening here let’s revert to that curious product of early romanticism, the gothic romance. In old gothic the hero/villain (Faust, Melmoth, et al.) often acquired the power to charm or hypnotize through an actual pact with infernal powers; in the next stage of gothic that power was held by figures wholly or partly demonic in nature, whether they were on speaking terms with the devil or not. Characters of this type range from Le Fanu’s Uncle Silas through Bram Stoker’s Dracula to Nabokov’s Van and Ada in Ada. In the newest pop or “postmodern” gothic the evil or crazed will has become its own excuse for being. Who needs supernaturalism?
Sociopathic or psychopathic factors may be adduced but they are not the point. The chief point seems to be to display middle-class moral funk, confusion, and back-pedaling when confronted with the concentration of fell intention in the downright evil heart or crazed psyche. As Kierkegaard said, purity of heart is to think one thing. At least one reviewer of McCabe’s novel has brought up for comparison the muzzled cannibalistic psychiatrist in The Silence of the Lambs. Well, why not? Once he’s hit his stride the boy is locked on to Mrs. N. The elegant fellow in the film, once he’s through showing how clever he is, we must believe is thinking of his next bite.
There is of course, as in all gothic, a lot of disbelief to suspend. In life, a well-nourished Mrs. Nugent under threat would probably have broken little Francie in two, or buried him and his febrile fantasies under an avalanche of Irish rodomontade before striding out to chair a meeting of the Country-woman’s Association.
One can feel equally doubtful when The Butcher Boy touches on politics. At the reform school the boy hides out with an old ex-terrorist and former comrade of Michael Collins who stokes the boilers and expresses total contempt for the esurient Roman Catholic “sky pilots” running the place. Here, as in George Moore, priests take the rap for the shortcomings of conventional Irish society. Irish anti-clericalism and its links to die-hard republicanism are not so well conceived here. For one thing, Michael Collins renounced his hugely successful career as a terrorist after the Anglo-Irish Treaty (1921) and was commander-in-chief of the national army fighting IRA diehards when he was ambushed and killed.
Yet we can appreciate McCabe’s interest in and identification with pariah figures: he once worked in inner London on an Irish passport, teaching learning-disabled children during the very years in which Thatcher—she is “Tatcher” to many on the other island—was eliminating “frills” from higher, secondary, and primary education. She was also, we remember, the first British prime minister to let Republican Army prisoners on hunger strike starve to death without offering any compromise or concessions. The issue was the claimed right of imprisoned “politicals” to be exempt from wearing the standard prison garb.
There is a play version of The Butcher Boy idiotically entitled Frank Pig Says Hello! which has already been produced in Dublin, with London and New York productions in the works, and a film version, with a script by Neil Jordan, is in preparation. As the wild cry of the Irish butcher boy goes around the world, one wants to be fairly clear why he is screaming and what about. Let’s suppose he’s screaming about the insult and injury visited upon the poor and powerless everywhere, darkening and shortening their lives, turning some suicidal, turning a few into saints, and at least an equal number, including Francie Brady, into moral horrors and monsters in action. It’s possible to resent being taught about man’s cruelty to man by a certified psychotic killer, yet who is a better guide to hell than one of the damned?
October 7, 1993