“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Flick Lit # 164: The Butcher Boy

“Part Huck Finn, part Holden Caulfield, part Hannibal Lecter… a haunting narrative, lyrical and disturbing, horrific and hilarious.” So ran The New York Times’ verdict on Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy. The Washington Post concurred, calling The Butcher Boy, “A masterpiece of literary ventriloquism – a Beckett monologue with a plot by Hitchcock.” McCabe’s novel – his third, following Music on Clinton Street and Carn – deserved all these plaudits and more; 15 years on, it remains one of the must-read novels of the last decade of the 20th Century. Told in flashback by a middle-aged inhabitant of a mental institution, the tale appears deceptively straightforward: the decline and fall of young Francie Brady, wannabe cowboy and self-styled Pig Boy. The childish exuberance that sustains Francie’s imagination (“Death to all dogs who enter here, we said. Except us of course.”) curdles into the nasty delinquency of adolescence as a direct result of the way his native rural town reacts to the incipient madness and subsequent suicide of his mother. With his father, a failed trumpeter, the laughing stock of the town and an alcoholic to boot, Francie’s petulant fight-back against valley upon valley of squinting windows evolves into full-blown psychosis, complete with voices in his head, split personality and a paranoia that almost inevitably concludes with murderous violence. Few critics, however, made reference to the literary sensation of the previous year. Patrick Bateman, the eponymous anti-hero of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, was a slick, charming killer seemingly deranged by the vacuity of his fin de siécle existence. McCabe’s is by far the warmer, more human tale; he manages to evoke and then sustain empathy for his central character that – perversely – grew stronger even as Francie’s internal monologue descended into pitch-black farce. Perhaps it is Francie’s indomitable optimism in the face of overwhelming odds, and his unswerving, naïve belief in the good inherent in the human race that binds us to him. Few books, when you finally lay them to one side, prompt you to cheer through the tears. Despite the obvious dangers inherent in pandering to conventional notions of stage-Irish buffoonery (the novel’s author appears in cameo as the town drunk, playing the part with barely restrained relish and spoofing the cliché of drink-sodden Oirishness in the process), Neil Jordan’s (below right) film remains faithful to the novel’s sense of time and place, that of Co. Monaghan during the ’50s and ’60s, but refuses to indulge the insecurities that attend insularity. Francie’s existence is one of self-sufficient resistance to an impervious society and the mounting horror that stalks his gauche attempts to break into the world, but his consciousness is informed by superhero comics, the burgeoning rock ‘n’ roll revolution, and the long, cold shadow cast by the Cuban crisis. It is tempting to draw parallels between The Butcher Boy and The Company of Wolves, Jordan’s dark vision of the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale. Both films concern themselves with a vivid interior reality and a surreal interpretation of an ostensibly benign exterior world. But if comparisons must be made, it is perhaps truer to suggest that The Butcher Boy – in its inventive wordplay, chilling logic and murderous adolescent angst – is a rural Irish Clockwork Orange made for a generation uncomfortable with a celluloid history of begorrahs, shillelaghs and sticks with which to beat the pretty lady. John Ford might not have recognised it as such, but someone finally got around to making The Unquiet Man.- Michael McGowan

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