Sunday 16 June 2019

Keeping it country: Patrick McCabe on bogmen and cowboys

Patrick McCabe's new novel is inspired by the rural Irish experience but has more than a dash of the Wild West. The Monaghan writer tells Andrew Lynch about giving his characters a cowboy patois to capture the rhythms and humanity of great country music

Sailing against the wind: Patrick McCabe says if he wrote The Butcher Boy today, it probably wouldn't be published
Sailing against the wind: Patrick McCabe says if he wrote The Butcher Boy today, it probably wouldn't be published

Patrick McCabe is a stubborn man. A few years ago, one of his publishers warned him that nobody wanted to read dark, twisted novels about "bogmen" any more.

The criticism was not exactly well received.

"I told them I don't care, I'm not finished with these bogmen yet," McCabe recalls, bristling with indignation at the memory. "I have no interest in following commercial trends.

"If I need to scrawl my books on a leaf, gibbering behind a rock or in some penitentiary, then that's what I'll be doing."

As these comments suggest, McCabe sometimes feels he is sailing against the tide. He has been one of Ireland's most famous writers for over 25 years, but now suspects the novel is a dying art form destined to end up "like flower arranging".

He claims that if his widely acknowledged masterpiece The Butcher Boy was written today, "it probably wouldn't even get published". The 63-year-old Monaghan man carries on making up stories because that is what he has done since childhood and to stop now would be "unthinkable".

In fact, McCabe has just produced his most technically ambitious book yet. "Sneeze you're a stiff - couldn't have been simpler", is the arresting first sentence of Heartland, whose narrator Ray 'Ringo' Wade finds himself trapped in the rafters of a midlands pub while staring down at some men who want to kill him.

This is the jumping-off point for what's being marketed as "a redneck sinfonia that will make you sweat", written in Wild West lingo and featuring themes of violence, alcoholism and loneliness.

"Every book is an emotional journey for me," McCabe says, "and Heartland was a real hard nut to crack.

"There were times when I nearly wept and cursed the day I ever went near it. But when I'd finished, I nearly wept because I was so happy with it. Which is very rare for me - I'm my own most severe critic."

Like all of his work, McCabe declares, Heartland is deeply inspired by the Irish rural experience.

"It's about people who are troubled, inarticulate but fundamentally decent.

"Of course the residents of Ferbane or Coalisland don't actually talk like that - the cowboy patois is like an invisible garment that I've given them to wear."

Above all, Heartland is McCabe's most sustained attempt yet to write a novel with the rhythms and humanity of great country music. The text mentions around 40 tracks from the likes of Jim Reeves, Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner, songs that the author himself used to play during his youthful stint as a ballroom keyboard player.

("I wouldn't call it a band, more a crowd of eejits," he once said.)

"The reason I love country music is because it uses the ordinary speech of human beings. At its best, it can encapsulate epic ideas or stories in the space of three minutes - what Hank Williams called an oak door song, something like 'I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry.'

"Fashion comes and goes with wearisome predictability, but human behaviour doesn't really change. You scratch an itch, you love a dog, you lament a death exactly the same way now as you did in the 14th century."

Urban sophisticates who look down their noses at anyone who enjoys this particular art form, McCabe believes, have no idea how much resentment they cause.

"I think maybe that's where Donald Trump came from. You know, the American bankers and country club set had this sense of entitlement and the people who were kept out thought, 'I've got nothing to lose by voting for this guy'.

"I felt it myself when I first came to Dublin and saw how people from the country like me started to change their accents."

Nursing an Americano (of course) in the Library Bar of Dublin's Exchequer Hotel, McCabe is a stimulating conversationalist but a tricky interviewee due to his fondness for going off on tangents. He makes no distinction between 'high' or 'low' art and can reference Harold Pinter plays, Quentin Tarantino movies and old English comic books in the space of a single sentence.

He lauds Blindboy Boatclub as "a great social commentator" and at one point breaks off to complain about the lack of Oscars for last year's naturalist film The Florida Project ("There's something seriously wrong when a masterpiece like that isn't winning every award going.")

Irvine Welsh once wrote that if Roddy Doyle is the Beatles of modern Irish fiction, then McCabe is the Rolling Stones - wilder, edgier, more rebellious. He is flattered by the comparison but thinks his enigmatic image may be due to an early publicity photo that showed him with a heavy beard, dark shades and trucker cap.

Brendan Behan is one of his literary heroes and he enthusiastically agrees when I suggest that he has adopted Behan's ethos without the lifestyle.

"Behan was great, but he really made a mess of his life - whereas I've always been very disciplined about the work."

The Butcher Boy, McCabe's spellbinding depiction of a pitiful juvenile murderer, was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1992 and memorably adapted for the cinema by Neil Jordan.

Although Breakfast on Pluto later repeated both those feats, he regards them as "freak strokes of luck" and points out that he has had plenty of commercial failures, too.

Unlike many authors, he freely admits that bad reviews irk him and particularly dislikes that 'bog gothic' tag that has followed him around ever since a journalist coined it.

"That's not just patronising, it's inaccurate," he says. "What I write about is small-town Ireland, the sort of places that are dying out now.

"I already knew they were doomed 40 years ago, but I still wanted to tell their inner psychic story because I love them so much."

McCabe wryly sums up the professional writer's life as a regular see-saw between agony and ecstasy.

"It's a very neurotic business. You're constantly living on your nerves. It's just not very healthy to spend two or three years thinking about characters who don't actually exist.

"As Martin Amis once said, authors are only about 60pc there for their children. My daughters were keen on writing and I always tried to talk them out of it, any chance I got.

"But on the other hand, there's a singularity of purpose that I hope I've passed on to them. They don't abandon anything they start and that's very important to me - I think I got it from my own father."

McCabe fears that the "leisurely, private activity" of reading is being drowned out by social media, a world that holds no interest for him.

"A few years ago, I wrote a television play for RTÉ and somebody told me that Twitter was lighting up with compliments.

"But why would I care? That sort of thing is so unreflective and it's all gone by the next day."

When I tentatively ask McCabe if he ever feels like a dinosaur, he laughs and replies: "Everyone's a dinosaur in waiting.

"When I turn on the tube and see the meretricious arrogance of media people and fashionistas, I feel melancholic on their behalf.

"Because it's all so fickle. I mean, I remember the 1970s and the idealism we had about freedom fighters and communal living. What did it deliver? Deepak Chopra and kittens."

As our time together draws to a close, McCabe gestures towards my copy of Heartland.

"I just hope you found it a gripping story," he says. "When James Joyce was asked about the Homeric parallels in Ulysses, he said that's only the bridge I use to get my soldiers across.

"It's the same for me - as long as readers keep turning the pages to find out what happens next, I'll be happy."

Heartland is published by New Island Books

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