For three months, while he wrote The Butcher Boy, Patrick McCabe was F rancie Brady. Philip Parr talks to the author, now happily restored
to his former self.
Francie Brady is a normal sort of Irish lad - not many friends, but happy enough. Then his mother starts acting strange. his father spends more and more time down the pub and even his best friend becomes distant. All this coincides with the arrival in town of the Nugents, a well-to-do middle-class family. Thus begins Francie’s terminal decline, as charted in Patrick McCabe’s second novel — The
The author claims that the task of ‘becoming’ an increasingly wayward eleven-year-old — the story is told by Francic himself— brought him few problems. ‘It‘s a bit like method acting, really,’ he says. ‘If you’re going to write about this inarticulate but very deep-feeling guy, you have to ~ become him to treat him with the respect he’s due. I didn’t write the book with any premise or theory in mind, and when the character takes off, he goes where he wants to go. It’s like lighting a gunpowder trail — nothing can stop it after that.‘
Francie’s story, however, was not an entirely evolutionary process. ‘I started off with a feeling of melancholia and loss,’ McCabe says. ‘and gradually it started to take shape and bind itselfup with this story I’d heard as a kid, about a seventeen-year~old in 1904 who, purely for gain, robbed a guy, killed him and buried him in a manure heap. The two things gelled together, with the unifying theme being death, seen as an idyllic, blissful state, because it releases you from the torment of longing. I moved it to 1961 because that was a time of night sweats and anxieties over the
rather what he can.
Cuban missile crisis. The idea is that the external world and its uncertainties mirror Francie’s internal disintegration. At the end of the book this chap says to him “Did you not know the world was going to end?” and Francic responds “Don’t tell me about the world ending," — the implication being “my world ended long ago.” ’
In the novel it is the mature Francie, incarcerated in a mental hospital for at least 30 . years, who describes his adolescence. This, : explains McCabe, is why the time-scale of the story often seems ambiguous. On one page, Francic is still very much a boy, playing Cowboys and Indians then, just a few pages later, he’s a maturing adolescent getting blitzed on drugs and alcohol. Looking back, the older Francie remembers not so much what he wants to, but
‘There’s a kind of mischievous realism,’ McCabe explains. ‘Because he’s so full of longing for things to be otherwise, he embellishes and he may have moved the truth around a bit, not very much. It’s sort of a choking cry for some kind of optimism which has been denied him. Basically, the whole
I ‘ V 1+. ‘ \ We . g, ., It If ‘ “ (is '- I 2
Patrick McCabe: ‘the unilng the
me is death, seen as an idyllic, blisstul state’
theme of it is that, in his youth, he inhabited the cartoon idealistic world of the Beano, he’s wide-eyed and full of hope. Slowly but surely he becomes tarnished, and the loss and disappointment becomes so twisted within him that his inarticulacy explodes into an unspeakable
That unspeakable act becomes increasingly inevitable as the story progresses and Francie’s hatred for the Nugents, especially Mrs Nugent, intensiﬁes. McCabe, though, perhaps because he ‘became’ Francic while writing the book, doesn’t see his main character as being so different from the rest of us. ‘I-Ie’s fighting against moving into the adult world, where people start playing Pinteresque games with each other and everything becomes complicated. We all lose the ability that we had as children, when a touch or a glance enabled us to understand each other perfectly. Francic finds that unbearable - a time when it all made sense is never going to be there again. Given the wrong circumstances, any of us could ﬁnd ourselves that disturbed.‘
The Butcher Boy is published by Picador at£14. 99.
_ Ancient evils
it’s something of a cliche that every journalist is a lrustrated novelist, but as his third novel, The Shee, terrllies readers across the country, Joe Donnelly is living prool that deadlines can exist alongside dreadlines. Award-winning writer lor the Sunday Mail (last year voted Scottish Reporter ot the Year lor his investigative work on child abuse and the Shotts prison riot), the iruits of countless Monday altemoons spent at the typewriter in his Dumbarton home have catapulted Donnelly to the loretront ot the British horror scene. His fusion of Celtic mythology with contemporary tears succeeds both through its originality and its roots in age-old storytelling techniques.
Donnelly’s lirst encounter with Celtic myths, in an old, deserted house, ltsell
Joe Donnelly sounds like something lrom an old horror tale. ‘lt was when l was about eight,’ he recalls. ‘There was a big, stately mansion up behind Dumbarton, which had a derelict coachhouse we used to play around. Finally we got into the loll and lound a pirate's treasure
chest, like something out oi Robert
Louis Stevenson, iui I at dusty books. I picked up one which said ‘Celilc Myths', so i threw it aside, thinking it was about lootball. But when I picked it up again, here was this lasclnatlng set at tales tor a wee laddle.’
Despite the long and honourable Celtic literary tradition, iew Scottish or Irish writers have dipped a toe in the horror pool. Apart from the likes ol Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Hatter’s Castle (by lellow Dumbartonlan A..l. Cronin), the potential tor tales oi terror in Scotland's culture and landscape has rarely been tapped. However, Donnelly’s lirst two novels, Bane and Stone were set, respectively, In the isolated north and amongst the west oi Scotland standing stones, while The Shoe plays out on lreland’s west coast. A strip oi water may separate the two malnlands, but, in cultural terms at least, they have been blood relations tor centuries.
The new novel centres on a Scottish newspaper photographer, a direct
descendant oi the mythical warrior Cuchulaln, who is trapped in a small village when an archaeological dig awakens a malevolent power. Donnelly masterfully weaves together the brutal terrorist killings his hero witnessed in the north and the destructive iorce ol ancient evil in a real adrenalin-surge llnale.
‘l have him as a photographer because I needed the “light” theme lor the relncamatlon oi Cuchulaln, the Son ol Light, who would use light as a weapon,‘ he explains. ‘As iar as bringing the two cultures together, that was to show that horror goes on and on. Nothing you write can be equal to the horror you see in real llle -worklng in newspapers you see a lair amount oi it. We don't have lamlnes here at the moment or massive earthquakes, so we can be quite smug and tickle each
other's tears. And just keep our lingers
crossed that we don’t have to lace any real horrors.’ (Alan Morrison)
The Shoe is published by Century at £14.99.
The List 2-l April — 7 May I992 63