Patrick McCabe's disturbed protagonist McNab first appeared in The Butcher Boy; Jefferson Chase sees how he's grown
The great dilemma faced by today’s generation of gifted Irish writers is all the other gifted Irish writers from past generations who have, as we Americans say, “been there, done that.” Call it James Joyce Fatigue Syndrome.Everybody loves Irish literature for its shear delight in language and wry revelry in human foibles. But just how many well-written novels about Finns and Paddys frittering away their lives in pubs does the average book consumer need to read in his lifetime?Patrick McCabe comes up with a devilishly clever way round the dilemma in his 2001 novel Emerald Germs of Ireland. Open the first pages and meet Pat McNab, a 45 year old stand-in for the author, drinking anything he can get his hands on in Sullivan’s Select Bar. Think you’ve read this one before? Think again.The difference here is that Pat McNab may or may not be a serial killer.The novel contains a series of more-or-less autonomous chapters, named after folk and popular songs. The first is entitled “Whiskey on a Sunday,” and reveals that McNab probably killed his mother. That fact makes things all the more problematic when he ends up, in a state of deep inebriation, in the house of one of his mother’s friends. Specifically, tangled up in her drapes, then falling down and bumping his head on her furniture:There was something quite unexpected about the figure of Mrs Turbridy as it made its way towards him through an undoubtedly bleary, fogged up haze. For a moment Pat could not ascertain exactly what the nature of this ‘unexpectedness’ was but then – it came to him.His mother’s friend was smiling in a most unusual fashion and undulating the lower portions of her body. Pat was quite taken aback…. It was quite some moments before the damp cloth began to soothe the pain about his temples. ‘Mrs Turbidy! It’s so sore!’ cried Pat… Readers may be forgiven for detecting some sexual overtones here.In fact, the relationship quickly develops into a bizarre pas de deux of dependence in which McNab assumes the role of Mrs Turbidy’s son. To assure herself of his affections, she in turn plies him with whiskey, which, as it turns out, is a dangerous undertaking. Being McNab’s mother involves not only filial affection but filial rage, and alcohol brings out his darker side.Thus it is that Mrs Turbidy wakes up one night and finds herself tied to her bed with McNab squatting atop her.Initially haste as regards the replenishment of the tundish’s contents was not a major concern of Pat’s, but this was not to last, and within a matter of mere minutes, the dazzling array of bottles – Johnnie Walker, Glenfiddich, Grouse, Bell’s and Paddy, of course! – were being utilised to form what was a veritable amber whirlpool which was subsumed with speed-of-light rapidity into the system of the prone and inert Mrs Turbidy, to be followed by a very liberal dispensation of the natural mineral H20 – a very liberal dispensation indeed it has to be admitted, the what might be termed ‘The Irrigation of Dolly Turbidy’ having already begun.That’s a round-about way of saying that McNab fills her up with whiskey, then sticks a garden hose down her throat and turns the water on full blast.The narrator rambles on and on in a parody of Joycean verbosity, until readers begin to suspect that perhaps nothing he tells us is true.Perhaps what we’re reading are nothing more than the weird fantasies of Pat McNab/McCabe, sitting at the bar back in Sullivans. In other words, perhaps the author is having a laugh at our expense.However one wants to read this novel, there’s no denying the fun to be had in a witty, imaginative, if not especially profound piss-take on the clichés of Irish literature – and reader’s expectations from that genre.So in the spirit of Patrick McCabe, and at the risk of both self-parody and a first, fatal step towards a career in writing back-cover blurbs for the Picador Publishing Corporation, let me conclude by suggesting that these Emerald Germs of Ireland are perhaps something many readers of this magazine might want to catch.* Emerald Germs of Ireland is published by (you guessed it!) Picador.
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