Saturday, November 24, 2007

McCabe's Butcher Boy

Patrick McCabe, The Butcher Boy, Dell 1992. This is an excellent novel on a number of levels. It is told entirely from the point of view of a psychopathic adolescent, Francie, who eventually, and inevitably, commits a murder. The demands on a writer of this sort of project are intense. A great ear for language, sustained creative effort, and great humanity all have to come together from the first page to the last. A structuring element is Francie's obsession with a neighbor boy who has been the only one he could ever call his friend. This boy is privileged (sent off to private school) and sane (with no real emotional connection to Francie on his own part). Early in the novel Francie goes into the boy's home and dresses up in his school clothes, an episode that ends with Francie pushing the boy's mother to the floor. There is a fine quality of dread as the reader is carried down the current of a story that can only end horribly. Like all great misanthropic novels, this one keeps the reader/victim alive with delicious black humor.

The humor serves other purposes as well. It forces us to view things with a certain dispassion, and that opens up a wider angle of view of the subject matter. Readers of this blog know that my experience of Irish literature is historical, political, and social, in addition to my love of the Irish love of language. Maybe Patrick McCabe just wanted to perform this exercise and thrill us all with his virtuosity (like the young man dressed up like James Joyce you can find in any bar on the island).

But the allegorical possibilities here are too obvious to ignore. Francie's job with the butcher, found for him after he washes out of grade school, is the lowest of the low, cleaning up and disposing of viscera after making his deliveries. He insists that the boy unfortunate enough to come from where he comes from remember him, even going to the boarding school, where the boy and his real friend find him as amusing as threatening. He forms a hatred of the mother of the prosperous and functioning boy, certain that it is she who looks down on him (who doesn't?) and rejects him. After he is sent away he is abused by a priest at the institution, a kind of treatment that this poor soul takes for granted as his lot, which indeed it is. All of this gets right to the heart of the Irish condition. The oppressed cannot embrace legitimacy and prosperity without losing a more ancient dignity. Still I can feel the spirit of Beckett mocking me for my bourgeois reduction of this tragicomedy: that's McCabe's achievement.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Norman Mailer

I've just read Charles McGrath's obituary of Norman Mailer in today's NYT. I was just talking to an old friend about Mailer the other day, as it happened. He was one of those culturally important figures who bridged the beatnik 50s and the hippy 60s, established as an old provocateur before the "cultural revolution" began. He was also a genuine original, a free-standing, self-created artist and gonzo celebrity identified not with fellow travellers but with the people he got into fights with. I didn't keep up with him after working through his early writings as a teenager. I can tell you that The Executioner's Song (1979), his treatment of Gary Gilmore, has an excellent reputation, and so also for Ancient Evenings, his excursion into Egyptology. I've read The Naked and the Dead (1948), an excellent, straightforward combat novel, The Deer Park (1953), An American Dream (1965), which will live forever as a canonical "Sixties" novel, but The Armies of the Night (1968), his account of a massive antiwar march on the Pentagon in 1967, is the book that I most associate with Mailer. It is miles beyond gonzo journalism before gonzo journalism was invented. He is a pump of words, swamping the reader's mind with the torrent of his own subjectivity, a visceral writer who is completely present at all times. The Pentagon something collection of papers, maybe another selection of papers, Why are We in Vietnam?, The Prisoner of Sex, and maybe one or two other things (Advertisements for Myself). I read Tough Guys Don't Dance because my friends and I used to go bicycle camping out to Truro on Cape Cod, a nice "entertainment" as Graham Greene would call it. I remember reading Mailer on boxing, I was comparing his boxing writings to Hemingway's bullfighting writings (Death in the Afternoon) as part of a high school paper.
My idea was to match up The Sun Also Rises to The Deer Park (partially on the strength, maybe, of cover art on my paperback copy of The Deer Park which made it look like a racy book about adulterous hipsters, which it isn't especially), A Farewell To Arms with The Naked and the Dead, and For Whom the Bell Tolls with The Armies of the Night as I recall, who knows why? Both political. Anyway the idea was a big parallel comparison for my Hemingway class term paper, which turned out to be a good choice since the teacher had written his Master's thesis on Mailer, as it turned out.
Somewhere I read the 50s-60s described as the golden age of the Jewish-American writer, it's fair to connect Mailer with Philip Roth's subversive spirit and self-revelation, and Joseph Heller (not sure, is Heller Jewish?) is an obvious co-generational. Saul Bellow is fixated on the outsider protagonist like Mailer. I imagine Alan Ginsburg would smile at the suggestion that he belonged in the category with Mailer, but I'm not sure he would disagree. Of course Ginsburg, like Mailer, is just as identifiable as a 50s-60s crossover figure and 60s icon, so one doesn't place them only as "Jewish" writers, whatever that means. They are also what we call "Sixties" writers.