Tuesday 11 December 2018

It's mayhem back in stray sod country

Fiction: Heartland, Patrick McCabe, New Island, hardback, 324 pages, €13.95

Rootless: Pat McCabe's latest novel is set in a curiously undefined world. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Rootless: Pat McCabe's latest novel is set in a curiously undefined world. Photo: Frank Mc Grath

John Boland

This exuberant, Tarantino-esque yarn sees McCabe in familiar territory but perhaps it's time for new tune.

Hiding in the rafters of an isolated rural pub, the terrified Ray 'Ringo'  Wade peers down at the group of men who have just beaten up his best friend Jody and are now waiting for their fearsome leader Tony Begley to arrive and finish him off.

Indeed, for all the times his name is invoked, the book might well have been called Waiting for Begley, though at least, unlike in Beckett's play, this much-anticipated figure does eventually make an appearance, even if it takes 258 pages for him to do so.

In the meantime, the men in the bar argue, curse and reminisce about the good old days when they all worked together on the "killing floor" of Glasson Meats, a factory that had been set up in this godforsaken outback by entrepreneur William Walter Monroe, who had also created the Heartland ballroom as a place of fantasy for these local yokels, with its "giant rooftop heart revolving in all its blush-pink radiant glory".

This was "back in the old times when the troubles were at their height" and when beatings such as the one Jody had just received "would have been a routine occurrence". Jody's particular crime, perpetrated with fellow orphan Ray, lay in ripping off the revered Monroe, thus causing him to commit suicide and therefore demanding vengeance from his loyal lieutenants.

This is familiar McCabe territory and he's unapologetic about revisiting it yet again - interviewed in these pages last Saturday, the Monaghan writer disclosed that when one of his British publishers told him nobody wanted to read dark novels about "bogmen" anymore, he replied: "I don't care, I'm not finished with these bogmen yet".

The danger, though, is that it can all come to seem dismayingly routine. And so here, just as in The Stray Sod Country (2010), we have a cast of stock figures, this time with such names as Big Barney Grue, Shorty McHale, the Runt McHale, Wee Hughie Munley, Red Campbell and Sonny Hackett - stock in the sense that they register as generic types rather than individual people.

Indeed, they're barely distinguishable from each other as they rant and rave throughout their long, long night in the pub while waiting for Begley to arrive and dispense summary justice to the hapless Jody - though in this Tarantino-esque yarn, not so much The Hateful Eight as the Spluttering Six.

These are men who are "only too ready to commit themselves to violence", which, we're told, is "the curse of heartlands everywhere".

Meanwhile, the terrified Ray remains in the rafters observing it all, while also finding the time to fill us in on aspects of his life before and after this "dreadful night". It's a life, like that of the other characters, entirely devoid of women, mention of whom is fleeting, except as fantasy figures in this hermetically -sealed male world of violence, alcoholic excess and psychosis.

It's also a curiously undefined world. There's a passing mention of Dundalk and there are allusions to the grim legacy of the Troubles, while the Sunday World is credited with "blowing the cobwebs off sleepy old Ireland", but otherwise there's no real sense of a recognisable Ireland and the action, such as it is, might as well be taking place in the Ozarks or the backwoods of Kentucky - a feeling emphasised by the Wild West-type lingo that's deployed somewhat fitfully throughout and by the constant invocations of such country-and-western heroes as Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, Patsy Cline, Porter Wagoner and Jim Reeves, as if no other music existed.

An idyllic America is also evoked in letters sent home to Ray after this "dreadful night" by Jody (we learn too early in the book that he has escaped the murderous fate planned for him, though a bloodbath is eventually enacted anyway). But as Jody has never really come into focus as a character, it's as hard to care about his ultimate salvation as his earlier peril.

And that's true of narrator Ray, too, whose life has subsequently unravelled until a concerned priest advises him to keep a journal recording his "spiritual pilgrimage", though it's unclear what could be deemed spiritual about the sorry, unedifying story he tells us.

Much else remains unclear, too, not least what Jody and Ray's crime against Monroe actually entailed, why they did it or how they were found out. As for the carnage that erupts near the book's end, it comes from such an unexpected source that the reader wants to know a lot more about the taciturn man who perpetrates it and his long-harboured reasons for doing so, which are only sketchily suggested here.

That would have made for a different book and one probably more rooted in its Irish time and place, but McCabe was clearly having too much fun with the other characters he'd invented and with their various shaggy dog yarns (you can picture him making it all up as he goes along) to bother exploring the political and religious implications of this particular strand.

And the book is certainly written with the exuberant verve that first brought him to everyone's attention in the 1992 Man Booker-shortlisted The Butcher Boy. That remains an astonishing novel and he's still an arresting writer, but in his last few books it's hard to avoid the sense of an old song being resung to a too-familiar tune.

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