Friday 21 June 2019

Men bound together by time and crime

Fiction: Heartland, Patrick McCabe, New Island, €13.95

Patrick McCabe's new novel 'Heartland' is inspired by the rural Irish experience
Patrick McCabe's new novel 'Heartland' is inspired by the rural Irish experience

Ronan Farren

As a novelist Patrick McCabe wears two hats: one as the producer of what for want of a better term I'll call his serious novels. These include The Butcher Boy, Breakfast on Pluto and Winterwood. Then there are his country and western books, complete with metaphorical stetson, including Mondo Desperado, Emerald Germs of Ireland and Call Me the Breeze. The latter are sinister, mock maudlin, jocularly sentimental and peopled with boldly cartoonish characters that err grandly on the side of hyperbole. Heartland is one of these, in spades.

Gathered in a rural pub - the setting for this far-out yarn is the mythical Glasson County - is a glorious assemblage of misfits, grotesques, oddballs and plain psychopaths who are awaiting the arrival of one Tony Begley (Waiting for TB could be the title), and as they wait, all night and into the dawn, they drink huge quantities of Jungle, a beverage unknown to this reviewer, and unexplained, but clearly one of sterling potency.

They are all far advanced in alcoholic incoherence, though this state doesn't prevent them from expressing thoughts, threats, opinions (mainly on country 'n' western singers) and bloodthirsty calls for the disposal of their prisoner, held in the pub cellar, and already reduced to a bloody pulp.

Tony Begley is the guy to finish the job - when he turns up. Observing the whole scene from his hiding place in the pub rafters is Ray ('Ringo') Wade, in an understandable state of terror. The assorted weirdos below are looking for him so that he can join his doomed pal, Jody Kane, in the cellar.

The heavies include Red Campbell ("Two in the head is what the sumbitch deserves ..."), Sonny Haskett, Big Barney Grue, wee Hughie Munley and the McHale twins, affectionately known as The Runt and Shorty. The barman, who appears to be borderline sane, is Mervyn.

They are there to plan and hopefully execute terrible vengeance for the death of their hero, WW Monroe, whose passing has cast a pall over their dysfunctional lives: Jody, in the cellar, and Ringo, quaking in the rafters, are held responsible for the death of WW, the man who built and ran the magnificent Heartland Ballroom and brought light and joy to Glasson County.

The waiting goes on. They squabble and swear at each other. They remember the good times. They taunt Wee Hughie, calling him Patches and making lewd references to his sisters. Mervyn calmly keeps up the supply of Jungle - he's a kind of wise man, at least in this company. Every so often one of them stumbles over to the jukebox to stick on something by Patsy Cline or Roger Miller or Jim Reeves. They fight over the choice of records. They lapse into introspective bouts of sentimentality, remembering the good ole days and the women who inexplicably left them.

What does it all mean? Well, that's probably the wrong question. My own view, and it's far from definitive, is that Patrick McCabe is enjoying himself in his own slightly macabre fashion and, dammit, he's hoping the reader will share some of his pleasure.

On the other hand it is a possibility that there is a deeper meaning here, one that eludes the poor reviewer. But I don't think I'd be going too far out on a limb in suggesting Heartland is not exactly profound. And I do, seriously, look forward to Pat McCabe's next 'serious' novel.

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