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Ireland in the not-so-swingin' fifties

Like much of his fiction, The Stray Sod Country is set in a border town that resembles Patrick McCabe's own home place of Clones, and it features a gallery of local grotesques familiar in general outline, if not specific name, from earlier novels.

There's Blossom Foster, an insufferable snob who is married to bank manager Bodley and who likes nothing better than to lord it over fellow Protestant Geraldine 'Golly' Murray, not least because Golly went and married Catholic barber Patsy, from which union came disabled son Boniface.

There's parish priest Father Augustus Hand, devoured with envious loathing of jet-setting celebrity priest Father Peyton but more immediately threatened by ex-teacher James Aloysius Reilly, who has gone crazy and who vows to kill Fr Hand for the part he played in ruining him after he'd kissed a boy whom he had momentarily mistaken for Hollywood actress Dorothy McGuire.

The time, as that suggests, is in the past, with references to Fruitfield sweets, Vauxhall saloons, clove drops, Russ Conway, Billy Fury, Harry Worth, Veno's cough mixture, milk of magnesia, Senior Service cigarettes and Flanagan and Allen.

In fact, it's 1958 in the town of Cullymore and in these pre-troubled days everyone smugly congratulates themselves, and each other, on their benign friendliness and their civic-minded sense of community -- "In Cullymore we are all the same!" one of them contentedly declares.

From early on, though, the reader is made acutely aware that this won't last and that privately nurtured resentments and enmities will prove catastrophic. Indeed, blood-lettings ensue and as the years pass other calamities are inflicted on the townspeople.

All of this is recounted with droll, wait-till-I-tell-you faux-naivete by a narrator who gradually intrudes more and more into the telling, though in what guise is never quite certain -- is he merely an omniscient observer or is he the town's vengeful spirit, goading his hapless characters towards their respective destinies and dooms?

These characters also include pious primary teacher Jude O'Hara, "the holiest man in the town", genial butcher Barney Corr, lovelorn returned emigre Fonsey O'Neill, disgraced dentist Albert Craig, covert IRA young turk Manus Hoare and Blossom Foster's son Ralph, who is an RUC sergeant engaged in a relationship with Manus's sister.

I say characters, but in fact these people are caricatures -- cartoon figures from a graphic novel that has dispensed with the graphics -- and while this proves amusing for the first hundred pages or so, the author's determinedly one-dimensional approach becomes somewhat wearisome over 340 pages, the reader left longing for psychological insights and emotional developments that remain defiantly absent.

To say that, of course, is to ask for a different book, but it's hard not to feel that, for all his narrative skill and his genuine comic gifts, McCabe has too often been content to revisit the milieu and the people he so memorably evoked 18 years ago in his masterpiece The Butcher Boy.

On that occasion, the voice and the vision were of a piece, startlingly new and pitch-perfect, whereas The Stray Sod Country registers as a too-familiar refrain to an old song.

Irish Independent