Breakfast on Pluto, by Patrick McCabe

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Patrick McCabe has a special place on the KfC blog. It was just over four years ago, after reading his new novel, that I signed up with WordPress and penned the first book review I had written in some decades, thinking I would reread it the next day and decide whether or not to enter the book-blogging world. Completely unaware that I had created links to some blogs where I was a regular visitor, that hesitant review of The Holy City by the next morning had produced some instant comments from book bloggers around the world — like it or not, KfC had inadvertently joined the blogging world. 428 posts later, it is a happenstance that I have never regretted.

I have a fondness for Irish authors — there is no doubt John McGahern is a personal favorite and I will be introducing yet another, John Broderick, in the next post here — but McCabe will always occupy a privileged position in that select company. His Ireland and his story-telling are characterized by off-the-wall plots and even stranger characters but he uses them to extraordinary effect in portraying the land and people that he obviously loves.

Breakfast on Pluto, published in 1998, comes from McCabe’s mid-career (novel six of 12 published to date as far as I can tell) and is an excellent example of his distinctiveness. The Troubles that plagued Ireland throughout the 20th century have apparently come to an end and in the conclusion to a short prelude the author states his intention for this novel:

The war over, now perhaps we too can take — however tentatively — those first few steps which may end unease and see us there; home, belonging and at peace.

In one sense, all four of the McCabe novels that I have read (WinterWood and The Stray Sod Country are the other two) are “historical” tales of the impact of Ireland’s troubles. In another, however, all are better viewed as black fantasies where McCabe leans on the absurd to sketch his version of that history.

The conceit of Breakfast on Pluto is that it is a series of exercises written by the hero, Patrick Braden, at the direction of one Dr. Terence, a psychiatrist who is treating him, apparently under court order. These too are introduced by a prelude, “I Was a High-Class Escort Girl”, which opens:

Although I am afraid I don’t get too many clients these days! I can just imagine the reaction of my old acquaintances if they saw me now, sitting here in my silly old coat and headscarf — off out that door and down London’s Kilburn High Road with the lot of them, no doubt! Still, no point in complaining — after all, every beauty has to lose her looks sometime and if the gold-digging days of poor old darling poo poo puss are gone for ever, well then so be it. I ain’t gonna let it bother me, girls! Just give me Vic Damone, South Pacific, plus a yummy stack of magazines and I’ll be happy, as once more I go leafing through the pages of New Faces of the Fifties, Picturegoer, Screen Parade, gaily mingling with the stars of long ago.

Patrick prefers to be known as Paddy Pussy, his trade name as a transvestite prostitute. How did this Irish lad, born in Tyreelin in 1955, come to this end?

Well, for starters, Paddy is a bastard, the son of the local priest, Father Bernard McIvor:

When asked why he no longer sang in the church on Christmas morning, his eyes would appear to glaze over and he would regard his inquistor with an expression of mystification almost as if the reasons were far beyond him too. Which they weren’t of course, for as many of his parishoners knew, despite rarely giving voice to it in public, the what might be termed: Change in Father Bernard dated back to a single 1950s morning and to no other — the morning he inserted his excitable pee pee into the vagina of a woman who was so beautiful she looked not unlike Mitzi Gaynor the well-known film star. And then arranged for her to go to London so that there would be no dreadful scandal. ‘Dear, dear. I wonder what is wrong with Father Bernard,’ his parishoners would say, adding: ‘He’s not the man he was at all.’

The defiled mother may have been sent to London, but baby Patrick is parked for care and upbringing with Mrs. “Whiskers” Braden who in a drunken state blabs about the clerical parentage to an adolescent Patrick. His voyage into transvestism begins shortly afterwards when he begins experimenting with Whiskers’ comestics and clothes.

Certainly, a critical picture of the repressive nature of the Roman Catholic Church is a frequent element of Irish fiction, but I hope that sketchy outline gives an indication of the distinctly off-kilter point of view that McCabe brings to the story in general. Paddy Pussy’s trade as a transvestite prostitute provides the grounds for introducing a number of hypocritical men of stature who employ and fawn over “her”. Eventually, he/she will head to England in search of her birth mother — that occurs during the late 1970s when the IRA bombings were at their peak, so readers get an equally distorted view of that particularly violent aspect of the story.

As all these absurdities pile up, it is hard not to come the conclusion that author McCabe finds this era in Irish history simply too horrendous to approach in anything resembling “normal” terms — so he has created his own in which to frame the story.

That’s a convenient device which could all too easily become an escapist cliche. McCabe avoids that trap: from start to finish, Paddy is an engaging, often sympathetic character, doing his best to deal with (escape?) the circumstances surrounding him. These are truly absurd, so why not react with a fantasy response to the same thing? And employing the device of recounting all this through memories written down by a “recovering” Paddy at the direction of a psychiatrist supplies an appropriate bridge between the two.

Breakfast on Pluto has its weaknesses but succeeds as a worthwhile novel. For this reader at least, it is best viewed (as are the other McCabes that I have read) in contrast to McGahern’s portraits from the same era. While most of McGahern’s novels are brutally realistic in their portrayal of that Ireland, McCabe’s skewed view produces a reality of its own. As he says in the opening prelude, it is a way, “however tentatively”, of taking “those first few steps which may end unease and see us there; home, belonging and at peace.”

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16 Responses to “Breakfast on Pluto, by Patrick McCabe”

  1. Guy Savage Says:

    Have you seen the film version? I really liked the idea of the film but somehow parts didn’t work in its execution, but then given as you say the premise and the absurdities, perhaps it was a difficult project from beginning to end.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I haven’t seen the film and don’t think I will look for it. Even in a book, some of McCabe’s devices come close to going over the top — I can’t see how a director could resist the temptation. Your opinion would seem to confirm that’s what happened.

      • Guy Savage Says:

        Strong cast (cillian Murphy, Liam Neeson, Stephen Rea) and directed and written by Neil Jordan. All that talent but it still didn’t quite work for me.

        • kimbofo Says:

          I saw the film during its cinema release because it stars Gavin Friday, a brilliant musician/actor/cross-dresser whose career I’ve followed for a long time. (He also happens to be Bono’s best friend, but don’t count that against him).

  2. Kerry Says:

    This sounds like not the place to start with McCabe. My TBR is long already, so I’ll take a pass on this one but will be sure to watch out for McCabe when I am browsing. What is it about the Irish and writing? Why are they so good at it?

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I have no answer to your questions, beyond agreeing that the Irish produce exceptional literary works of all kinds (from Toibin’s short stories to Joycean epics, with many stops in between). For my taste, McCabe’s The Holy City is my favorite of the four that I have read so far, mainly because it has the additional topicality of introducing elements from the Celtic Tiger period.

      • Kerry Says:

        I read somewhere that Irish parents, unlike parents pretty much everywhere else, are thrilled if their child wants to become a writer. Of course, it is a gross generalization (both ways), but, if any nugget of truth to the suggestion that writing is a respected profession, it could explain some of the phenomenon. (And I suspect there is some clustering or a feedback loop or something: Florida/Texas and football, Jamaica and sprinting, Indiana and basketball (at least for awhile), etc.) A culture arises around some stars and pretty soon they are churning out more stars who beget more imitators….with some native advantages (mild winters in Florida and Texas, etc.)…..this is all wild speculation on my part.

        Less speculatively, I will keep an eye out for Holy City. Your favorite and the Celtic Tiger is more than enough recommendation for me.

  3. Trevor Says:

    Wow! 428 posts?! Time flies, and it’s been great, Kevin.

  4. leroyhunter Says:

    100 posts a year is truly Stakhanovite output!

    I’ve read Butcher Boy and The Dead School, both of which I liked, but his more recent stuff has passed me by I must admit.

  5. Lee Monks Says:

    We have plenty to thank Patrick McCabe for, then! 428? Well, I instantly wonder what you have pencilled in for ‘post 500’…is there a temptation to choose an epic to commemorate this milestone?

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Well, I think my introduction to blogging is proof positive that not a log of advance planning goes into what is going to appear here — I tend to have four or five books that are potential next choices and don’t plan much beyond that (my 2013 reread project being the exception that proves the rule). On the other hand, it would seem that post 500 is likely to come up just after prize season, which is when I have the time for longer works, so who knows?

  6. kimbofo Says:

    Congrats on 428 posts!

    I’ve only read McCabe’s Winterwood and The Butcher Boy – the latter is largely responsible for shaping my adult reading life because I had never read anything like it before (I was about 21)… there’s no punctuation and it gives you a glimpse into a deranged mindset. Absolutely compelling.

    Funnily enough, I’ve not been that interested in reading his later stuff. Winterwood was slightly too disturbing / dark / confusing for me to want to follow it up with anything else.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I would find it hard to argue the premise that reading a couple McCabe’s probably is enough — although, personally, I’ll keep on with him. If you do feel up to reading another, I would say that The Holy City captures aspects of conflict in present-day Ireland quite effectively. Then again, I’m hardly qualified to be recommending Irish writers to you. :-)

  7. sshaver Says:

    Hesitant reviews are the best kind.

    Congratulations on your 428.

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