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.

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