The Stray Sod Country, by Patrick McCabe

Purchased at Chapters.ca

This may be a bit of a spoiler for some (although I don’t think so), but it is hard to talk about the Stray Sod Country — the phenomenon as opposed to the book — without offering at least some indication of what it is. The author spends the first third of The Stray Sod Country illustrating and developing elements of it before offering this summary:

In Irish folklore it is routinely asserted that access to the Stray Sod Country is gained by means of the unholy gate. And that once you have reached it, you will find that you have been deceived and that you have now arrived in a place where the world can never be the same again. Your senses will have been overtaken by a heightened faculty of observation which can only result in the most unnamable terror of all — cosmic loneliness.

I have read and reviewed two previous Patrick McCabe novels (The Holy City — the very first post on this blog — and WinterWood). All three of those books feature some characteristics which I’m inclined to label “the McCabe toolbox”. Set in small Irish communities (this one in Cullymore), in the present tense of the novel not much happens — small town life does not have big time events but the little ones are every bit as major to the people who experience them. But looming throughout, and often coming to the fore, are centuries of inescapable Irish history and, most important, folklore which often overtake the mundane of the present with terrifying consequences. What distinguishes McCabe from many of his fellow Irish writers, however, is a third element — the creeping presence of global change (McCabe’s Ireland is the Celtic Tiger, not that of the Troubles) which is imposing new pressures on these sleepy communities just as surely as the folklore of the past is twisting the present.

The “narrator” of The Stray Sod Country, who does make first person appearances and observations particularly in the latter part of the book when he confirms that he is directing the “action”, is what the non-Irish world would call the Devil — he’s known to the locals as Fetch or Nobodaddy. There is no central character to the novel, rather an ensemble of Cullymore residents. The “present” of the novel is 1958 — the Soviets have just launched the dog, Laika, into space. This is the story of a community (influenced by that timeless Devil) and the dramatis personae are the people who live there:

Cullymore was a border town with an equal number of Protestants and Catholics, numbering two thousand in total. It had always been a source of pride for the community that, by and large — unlike so many other places — somehow everyone got along together. Which made it all the more regrettable that the ongoing feud between James Reilly and their parish priest showed no sign of subsiding. In fact, if anything, it appeared to be getting worse.

The setting is Ireland, so you can’t avoid that religious tension but Cullymore is different in the way that it handles it. That parish priest, Father Hand, for example is not preoccupied by Protestant enemies — his nemesis is Father Patrick Peyton, originally from the West of Ireland, now living in the United States where he is known as “a friend to the stars” and for his Rosary Crusade. Father Patrick Peyton, with the help of stars such as Frank Sinatra (yes, the irony of casting Mafia-buddy Frank is deliberate — McCabe has many others as well), is filling Madison Square Garden and his Crusade is attracting much media attention. Father Hand’s response (“…if it’s the last thing I do, I’ll best the infuriatingly smug Mayo toady”) is to commission an Easter week performance of Tenebrae, to be performed in his church by actors recruited from town notables. Preparing for that performance will be one of the key driving narrative forces in the present tense of the novel.

The James Reilly of the previous quote used to be a teacher in the local school until, apparently under the influence of Nobodaddy, he kissed an attractive young male student passionately on the lips one day — he says he doesn’t remember the incident. Led by Father Hand, the community promptly saw to his removal from his job and he now subsides just outside of town in a shack where he carefully maintains a family heirloom, a World War I vintage Lee Enfield rifle, and plots his revenge on the priest. The local constable assumes the rifle is far too old to actually fire; he is devastatingly wrong.

The ensemble cast is very large, but let me introduce just two more: Patsy Murray, the barber, and his wife, Golly (derived somehow from Geraldine).

He’s Catholic, she’s Protestant — Cullymore may be a tolerant community but even then some of the local worthies (most specificly the bank manager’s wife, Blossom Foster) are concerned by the mixed marriage:

– Marrying one of them, Blossom Foster had declared coldly, is of no advantage to anyone and she ought to have known that.

– You know, Protestants have it in them sometimes to be very hard, Patsy Murray heard his wife murmur when they found themselves lying in bed one night, so quietly cruel that it can be difficult to accept.

Like the Father Hand-James Reilly feud, the Golly-Blossom one will continue throughout the novel, escalating slowly but surely under the direction of the omnipresent narrator, be he Fetch or Nobodaddy or the Devil himself.

I have introduced only a handful of the cast (there’s an artist, carpenter, pool hall owner and young IRA recruit among others to be added — and those are just the males) and they all get involved in equally petty feuds. More important for The Stray Sod Country the novel, however, is that every one of them at some point comes under the influence of that Devil and enters the world of “cosmic loneliness” that is the Stray Sod Country of the place where they live.

McCabe’s third element, the inevitable change imposed by the modern world, becomes increasingly a factor in the latter part of the book, but I’ll leave it at that. Suffice it to say that the folk tale which the author works hard to establish in the first half of the book acquires some very modern elements as he brings it to a close.

That supernatural element — and its inherent darkness — means that McCabe is not for everyone since he demands from the reader an acceptance that it might, at the very least, be plausible. If you are willing to grant him that licence, you do enter McCabe’s world of past (the timeless supernatural), present (mundane but marked by continuing petty feuds) and future (there is a bigger world out there that is changing even traditional Ireland).

The fact that I have read three of his works (and have a couple of his earlier novels on the shelves as well) is indication enough that I am willing to enrol in his approach. Personally, I did prefer The Holy City to this one, mainly because the modern thread in that novel was much more present than it is here. Despite that caveat, The Stray Sod Country was an investment of reading time that provided entirely satisfactory results. McCabe’s Ireland differs from that of most of his colleagues — it is an intriguing world nonetheless.

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20 Responses to “The Stray Sod Country, by Patrick McCabe”

  1. Guy Savage Says:

    From the knees-up on the front cover, I was inclined to think that this was a jolly read. The bit about the rival priests confirmed that but then other elements hinted otherwise (the supernatural, the rifle). Is there any jolliness afoot here is it is a question of human foibles?

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: Well there are jolly interludes, but quite a few more human foibles — and the dark Fetch eventually overtakes them all. Part of what I did like was that McCabe succeeded in developing virtually all of the cast as interesting characters. Having said that, he does write himself into a bit of a box and the final parts of the novel seemed a bit rushed.

  3. Colette Jones Says:

    I’m glad you liked it, Kevin. For me, the narrator’s “identity” is the downfall of this book. I can’t suspend disbelief that far, I’m afraid! I liked the stories of the individual characters and wish he could have got them to the Stray Sod Country by way of reality rather than fantasy.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Colette: I acknowledge that the narrator is an intrusive device who becomes even more so as the novel moves on. Even though I liked the book, I think McCabe tends to use it as a convenience to advance story lines at that point — I can see where someone less disposed to accept the device would find it/him increasingly annoying at that point.

  5. kimbofo Says:

    Have you read McCabe’s The Butcher Boy, Kevin? I read it as an impressionable young 20-something and it was definitely one of those books that altered my world. It probably remains the singular most disturbing piece of fiction I’ve ever read. For many years it was my favourite book, probably because it had such an effect on me. Up until then I hadn’t quite realised the power of fiction to get inside your head and really mess with your brain.

    The only other McCabe I’ve read is Winterwood, which I found disturbing too, but in a different way. It had an all-pervasive creepiness that made me feel dirty reading it.

    I agree with your statement that “McCabe’s Ireland differs from that of most of his colleagues”, because I don’t see many of today’s writers mixing folklore with contemporary life in this way.

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kim: I am aware of the high reputation of The Butcher Boy — it is one of the McCabe’s that is awaiting reading (two a year seems to be the current pace). “Disturbing” and “creepiness” are certainly words that come up with his work. I think that Colleen raises a valid point that he sometimes forces that rather clumsily, but so far I’ve always been willing to go along. I do think this book would have been better with more contemporary influences in it — while the time line extends to the end of the 20th century, the last 40 years of that are incidents reported by the narrator. By contrast, the other two I have read use the contemporary world to underline the disturbing creepiness of the folklore part of the book.

  7. leroyhunter Says:

    An appropriate choice for Paddy’s Day reviewing Kevin. I’ve only read The Dead School by McCabe, but the creepy strangeness mentioned by you and others was present and correct (before tipping into full-scale lunacy).

    No doubt McCabe’s approach is a unique one, and worth a look for that. I’d like to read more of him.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Leroy: Yikes — I hadn’t even realized I was getting into Paddy’s Day country (a sign of abject preoccupation I would say). Part of what interests me about McCabe is that while his approach is consistent, it also is unique. That probably leads me to overlook some of his flaws, but then other good others share that characteristic with me.

  9. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I’ve read The Butcher’s Boy and liked it well enough, but somehow haven’t been moved to more. Should that change I suspect Holy City would be my next port of call.

    That cover is terrible. It’s basically appealing to cod-Irish stereotypes.

    • leroyhunter Says:

      Have you seen his other covers? I think it’s done deliberately, and having heard him speak about this book I’d imagine he’s a chap who wants input to these things.

      I think there’s an appropriation / exaggeration thing going on with his covers. At least, I hope there is, because otherwise they are just terrible.

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        Leroy: I thought the covers of both Holy City and WinterWood were quite good (I’d call them “beak landscape evocative”) at reflecting the novel. In a way, I guess this one does too since it is about the community as much as it is the individual characters, but the image just doesn’t seem appropriate. Perhaps that just shows that your “appropriation/exaggeration” observation is correct.

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I tend to give greater weight to “context” then style and imagery, which is why I preferred Holy City to this one — in that one McCabe had a better balance between the forces of folklore and globalization than this one.

    Quite right about the cover. If I’d come across this in a bookstore and didn’t know the author, I would even have taken it off the shelf. Even worse, the book features no versiou whatsoever of a community dance party — hell, the big “event” is an Easter religious pageant.

  11. Guy Savage Says:

    Kevin: Decided to pass on this one. Bought instead The Pornographer.

  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: I can’t dispute that — The Pornographer is my next McGahern since I am saving Rising Sun for last. He has not let me down yet.

  13. Guy Savage Says:

    Well that’s exciting then.

    BTW, are you into Maigret at all?

    Just got a DVD series from Australia about the Melbourne crime scene called Blue Murder. (There’s another series with the same title, but this is the Australian one.

  14. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: Not a Maigret fan, I’m afraid.

    Did watch season two of The Octopus on the weekend and it was every bit as good as season one. The show is dark enough that we’ll take a breather before loading season three into the player.

  15. Guy Savage Says:

    Sounds like my sort of thing. I’m hoping to get to it soon. I noticed that sellers are now offering the 3rd series on Amazon (a bit cheaper than directly from Amazon), so that’s a good sign for the rest of the series. The last time I looked Amazon had 1-4 for sale.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      We have 1-4 — the U.S. version was put out last year by MhZ, a Washington multicultural station. Since the Aussies have subtitled them all, I’d expect future years to come along fairly quckly in NA.

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