IN HIS TWO best novels, The Butcher Boy (1992) and The Dead School (1995), Patrick McCabe strives to set up the most gruesome and horrific scenes possible through the cheeriest of voices. Joke and jibe follow one another in rapid succession while tension builds in the background--until, to turn Yeats on his head, a beautiful terror is born.
McCabe is one of the modern Irish novelists who--along with Roddy Doyle, Dermot Healy, Colm Toibin, and a dozen or so others--makes you wonder why America gives so much press to those comparatively bloodless Brits to the east. McCabe is the lodestone of new Irish fiction, a writer capable of integrating the history and traditions of his country and its literature with the mad whirl of modern politics and pop culture. His most widely read novel, The Butcher Boy (made into a harrowing film by his friend and fellow novelist Neil Jordan), could have been subtitled: Portrait of a Cheerful Homicidal Psychotic as a Young Catholic Schoolboy. His latest, Breakfast on Pluto (the title is from an obscure 1969 pop song), could also be called Portrait of A Glam-Rock-Loving Transvestite.
Yet even that description doesn't scratch the surface of this droll tale. Patrick "Pussy" Braden, the product of a moment of madness between Father Bernard and his housekeeper, hails from the village of Tyreelin, Monaghan, near the Ulster border. Paddy, who is a repository of pop junk, recalls his mother only as a dead ringer for Mitzi Gaynor in South Pacific. In other words, like all of McCabe's characters, Paddy is the bastard child of a decaying old culture and an effete new one.
Abandoned on a doorstep in a Rinso box, Paddy grows up fantasizing about being crooned to by Vic Damone. He also dreams of being Dusty Springfield, whom he can impersonate with strange skill. Condemned to a foster home and a chain-smoking, Guinness-guzzling foster mother, he gets himself kicked out one day for modeling mom's underwear. Paddy is an idiot in the pure Greek sense of the word: He is devoid of morals. Apolitical as an alley cat, he becomes involved with a British officer, a romance that in Northern Ireland is as doomed as a dog who chases semis.
Afterward, Paddy moves to London, only to become mixed up with some of his former countrymen whose attitudes towards Britain are a bit more virulent than his own. Paddy and the glittery London of the early '70s are a natural match, though. Paddy hooks for his living and is a hit at parties with her Dusty Springfield impressions (by now, our hero, who narrates every other chapter, is referring to himself as "she" and "her").
After a particularly gruesome IRA bombing, Paddy is deported to Ireland and back into the arms of his loved ones (British police suspect his miniskirt outfits to be the ultimate terrorist disguise). To the world's--and no doubt to his own--surprise, Paddy proves to be something of a hero.
Paddy's flighty indifference to the inferno of politics raging around him ("It's bombing night and I haven't got a thing to wear!") is more than a device to set up some screamingly funny situations. It also enables McCabe to delve into the horror of the conflict without sliding into the kind of melodrama that undermined Manuel Puig's Kiss of the Spider Woman, a book that shares some surface affinities with Breakfast on Pluto.
Some will doubtless be offended by the treatment of so dreadful a subject as modern political terrorism in so irreverent a manner. But in the maelstrom of conflicts that marks the war in the north of Ireland, the sweet absurdity of Pussy Braden's world comes off as the only sane response.