Like the two bizzare characters in his new comic novel. Patrick McCabe used to be a school teacher. but that’s where the similarity ends. Ann Donald talks to the Irish writer about dope— srnoking and writing in the vernacular.
‘Carson McCullcrs has a phrase somewhere called “the laughter of disaster" that I quite like.‘ says Irish author Patrick McCabc. who‘s foraging fora rather more poetic slant on the tag that has been slapped on his novels over the last decade. Glaneing over his work (including the Bot.>ker'-sliortlisted The Butcher Boy) the mantle of ‘master of the humorous macabre‘ appears to have been thrust upon this quietly-spoken author.
His new novel The Dead .S'r‘hrml shows no signs in deviating from this rumbustious and, so far. well- receivcd genre. Set mainly in 1970s Ireland. the book homes in on the fateful lives of Raphael Bell —- an uptight headmaster at sea with an increasingly permissive society — and Malachy Dudgeon. a self— confessed ‘bollocks‘. Dudgeon's presence at Bell‘s sanctified school St Anthony's precipitates a chain of events that culminates in a bonﬁre of insanity and doom for both men.
That's the macabre bit. The crucial humour that permeates the increasingly disturbing chapters of each character‘s descent into the abyss. is 100 per
Patrick McCabe: reclaiming the vernacular
cent unadulterated ‘grand. green lsle humour“ as .\1c(‘abc tentatively defines it. .\ description that often applies to the old—fashioned theatre tradition of exaggerated humour. it is apt for the splendid and numerous funeral scenes that punctuate ruttch of this unusual novel.
The first odd. but telling aspect. is on the dedication page where McCabe credits Polish artist 'l‘adeusz Kantor as an inspiration. ‘Kantor had an exhibition in Dublin around the same time that the book is set.‘ he explains. ‘I‘m not an art buff by any means but this
installation of his called The Dead Sr‘hrm/ really stayed with rue for many years afterwards. It was a librcglass mannequin of a young buy just staring into space.' he recalls. 'lt suggested all sorts of feelings including despair'.’
.\s .\Ic( ‘abc readily acknowledges. there are a number of autobiographical strains running through the novel. Not least a certain affinity with the love- struck. wild-lad l)udgeon. MeC'abe too. did a stint as
f a primary teacher. though points out that he didn't
despise his pupils to the same extent as the characters Bell and Dudgcori. However. he does mention vague statements on the 70s. ‘It was a pretty bleak time as far as l was concerned.‘ he says. ‘The book was cathartic in a way . . . l confronted my demons.‘ Casting around for examples he cites I)udgeon's drugs bare in London where chapters skip by to the
‘I think everyone in the 703 had a blast 0’ that one. Not for long though — I got out while I still had a brain.’
musical blare of'l‘he Tubes‘ ‘White Punks ()n Dope' and the relaxation methods of Red ch and Paki Black. ‘I lived that life fora while. I think everyone in the 70s had a blast o' that one.‘ he latrghs. ‘Not for long though. I got out while I still had a brain.’ Though .‘\Ic(_'abe has lived in London for eight years. his spirit and imagination are still clearly ensconsed in Ireland if his wonderfully dextrous and cnergising language is anything to go by. Talking about the importance of the use of vernacular Irish he states: ‘If I thought my language was changing I‘d get the next plane back. It would be a disaster ifl started speaking in someone else’s thoughts. ‘Whether it‘s James Kelrnan's Glasgow or my small Irish town. we ought to keep pushing and pushing until our voice is heard and insist that the vernacular as it‘s spoken anywhere. is as valid as English.’ The Dead School by Patrick McCube is published on Friday 19 May by l’ir‘udm' ur U4. 9‘).
Men of the world
In the male-dominated newspaper business of the 60s, American writer Pete Dexter has found a perfect setting to explore the theme he returns to repeatedly — the difficulty men have In expressing their emotions. As in previous books like Brotherly love and Paris Trout, Dexter’s excellent new novel The Paperboy is principally about masculine relationships. The only female character Is driven by animal ' instinct and is mainly there as temptress for the boys.
The Paperboy ls set in 1969 in the backwoods of Florida where swamptrash still live out lives of Ignorance and squalor. WIN. Juries ls
a respected smalltown newspaper editor/proprietor who expresses himself best through the medium of newsprint. Newspapers are the only language he knows, which he is why he is inordinately proud of his son Ward, a blgshot investigative journalist. Equally he can’t understand why his younger son Jack, the book’s narrator, has flunked his swimming scholarship and college and seems happy to spend the summer delivering his father’s newspapers.
When Ward, the diligent fact-checker who works on major stories with his flamboyant writing partner Yardley Acheman, returns home to reopen the case of a cop-killer on Death flow, the James family relationships begin to unravel. Their buttoned-down reserve is in contrast to the killer’s family, the clannlsh and in-bred Van Wetters who could be straight out of Deliverance. ‘Florlda’s becoming a cosmopolitan place but there are still pockets where things are pretty much the way they have been for the last 100 years and
Pete Dexter: indictment of newspapers as entertainment
the people resist change,’ says Dexter.
The basic plot is from the Private Eye tradition, with Ward the emotionally- stunted gumshoe who is driven by a need to know the truth. But it can also be read as an indictment of the way the media turns facts into entertainment. Dexter’s writing career began in the late-60$ as a cub reporter on a Florida paper, just as the golden age of great American journalism was coming to an end. ‘The business has been stripped off its characters,’ he says. ‘The guys who used to walk into the office drunk - they’d come from the streets. You don’t get people who started as copy boys now; it’s all college graduates.
“Newspapers are all run by major corporations now so they all resemble each other. Newspapers ought to be as clear and accurate as they can be. The entertainment comes through the facts, not because somebody wants to be Ernest Hemingway.’ (Eddie Gibb) The Paperboy is published on 25 May by Viking at £15.
80 The List I9 May-l Jun I995