Thursday, January 17, 2013

A Modern Poe?

The Butcher Boy 

"these monsters of real life usually looked and behaved in a more normal manner than their actually normal brothers and sisters: they presented a more convincing picture of virtue than virtue presented of itself—just as the wax rosebud or the plastic peach seemed more perfect to the eye, more what the mind thought a rosebud or a peach should be than the imperfect original from which it had been modeled.”   ― William March, The Bad Seed

“Oh now now he says that's all over you must forget all about that next week your solitary finishes how about that hmm? I felt like laughing in his face: How can your solitary finish? That's the best laugh yet.”  ― Patrick McCabe, The Butcher Boy

Can children be evil? In literature this is certainly the case. I am reminded of the evil little girl, Rhoda Penmark, in The Bad Seed by William March. In Patrick McCabe's third novel we have a rival for Rhoda with Francie Brady. It is a journey into the heart of darkness: the mind of a desperately troubled kid one step away from madness and murder. Francie Brady is a schoolboy in a small town in Ireland. His father is a mean drunk and his mother a slovenly housekeeper, but Francie has a good buddy, Joe Purcell, and their Tom-and-Huck friendship is what sustains him. Then a seemingly trivial incident alters the landscape: Francie and Joe con the very proper Philip Nugent out of his prize collection of comic books, and Philip's mother calls the Bradys ``pigs.''
Like many of Edgar Allan Poe's narrators, Francie will blame all his troubles on someone else, in his case Mrs. Nugent; it doesn't help that the Nugent household is a cozy haven, maddeningly out of his reach. Matters rapidly deteriorate. His mother enters a mental hospital. Francie runs away to Dublin; he returns to find that his ma, whom he had promised never to let down, has drowned herself. He breaks into the Nugents' house, defecates on the carpet, is sent to reform school, and (the unkindest cut) loses Joe to Philip Nugent. Francie tells us all of this in a voice that is the novel's greatest triumph--a minimally punctuated but always intelligible flow of razor-sharp impressions, name-calling, self-loathing, pop-culture detritus culled from comic books and John Wayne movies (the time is 1962), all delivered with the assurance of a stand-up comic.
We see in this story the longing for childhood innocence, now lost forever, and just an inkling of the gathering mental darkness that will lead to an inevitable denouement. Reminiscent of Salinger and Sillitoe, McCabe has created something all his own--an uncompromisingly bleak vision of a child who retains the pathos of a grubby urchin even as he evolves into a monster not unlike some of those that issue from Poe's imagination. His novel is a tour de force.

The Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe. Fromm International, 1993 (1992)

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