The Holy City, by Patrick McCabe.


2mccabeThe Holy City, by Patrick McCabe

A most interesting novel from a most interesting author.  Irishman Patrick McCabe has given us Chris J. McCool, age 67, a Catholic bastard who has somehow survived a lot of Irish history.


In his early life, CJ has a problem dealing with his Catholicism — specifically the fact that his mother’s husband, the Protestant  landed gentry, wants no part of him at all.  CJ invents a half-brother and locates him in the manor, beginning a lifelong tendency of creating unreal worlds to explain the real parts that he cannot cope with.  Raised on the outskirts of the estate by a Catholic zealot, CJ has begun his road to ruin.


In the short term, it starts with a very well portrayed affair with Dolly Mixtures (or Dolores McCausland), another Catholic who can’t stand or live by the all too temperate Protestant mores of the district.  Alas, Dolly is staying in a household that includes Marcus Otoyo, a saintly black whom the local Catholic church has semi-adopted as a saint himself.  CJ’s jealousy, or homophobic lust, coupled with his longing for parents (or parent-like figures) creates disaster.


All of this is told from the perspective (both adding in and leaving out details — only the reader can try to figure out which) of a 67-year-old CJ who now lives in The Happy Club, shacked up (sort of married) with a beautiful Croatian whom he loves/distrusts at this age every bit as much as he loved/distrusted Marcus a half century earlier.


McCabe’s story is interesting, but it is not the real strength of the book.  That lies in CJ’s inability to cope with what is around him — originally the non-recognition from his parents, then the treatment of Asian doctors at the Asylum where he is treated, now just about everything that represents the arrival of the Celtic Tiger.  A true “Boomer” throughout it all, his touchstone is the music of the 1960s — Lulu and Peggy Lee figure prominently and it helps a lot as a reader if you remember their lyrics.  In the present tense, CJ and “wife” are regular visitors at Mood Indigo, a boomer-themed club by the retirement residence that keeps playing all that music.


McCabe does an excellent job of capturing the dislocation that CJ feels throughout his life — as a youth, during middle age and now in his senior citizenship.  It is not a perfect book by any means — it is definitely a worthwhile read.

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31 Responses to “The Holy City, by Patrick McCabe.”

  1. John Self Says:

    Great to see you blogging at last, Kevin!


    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I continue to be amazed at your ability to discover everything so quickly, including this blog. I wasn’t planning on telling people about it until I had four or five reviews up — I haven’t even told my wife I am doing it yet. Hope you don’t mind me including Asylum on my blogroll. Kevin


  2. John Self Says:

    Ah well, I only found it because you clicked on your own Asylum link to get to my blog. I won’t tell anyone else yet if you want to keep it under wraps for now. By the way, the link in your name doesn’t work – it should be . instead of @ – would you like me to change the link you put in your latest comment on my blog?

    Not incidentally, your review of The Holy City is about half the length of mine and sums the book up rather more clearly.


  3. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks for the explanation — and for spotting my error. If you could change the link on my latest comment, I would appreciate it. As you can tell, I am still very much in a learning mode on this experience.


  4. Stewart Says:

    Ah well, I only found it because you clicked on your own Asylum link to get to my blog.

    Same here. In fact, I put you on my blogroll last night. 😉


  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks, Stewart — I appreciate being on your blogroll and hope to be able to justify my addition there.


  6. Trevor Berrett Says:

    Appears I’ve been a bit delayed in finding your blog, Kevin, but I come here with no less excitement!


  7. Sheila o'Brien Says:

    I am Kevin’s wife, and am much relieved to see that he has been “pursuing his joy” and blogging about great literature. I was a little afraid he was a drug dealer, or perhaps running some hedge fund from his computer, given all the time he has devoted to his workstation.
    Imagine my relief – I can certainly relate to how Harold nicholson must have felt..


  8. susan silver Says:

    wow…sheila’s husband is smart! and a good writer…she is…well she is a good friend so I won’t knock her. this time!


  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Welcome to the blog, Susan. Please feel free to keep coming back and offeriing your comments.


  10. Rob Says:

    I hope I’m still in time to congratulate you on the new blog. If not, well, just ignore this comment.


    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      You are definitely in time and thank you for dropping by. Given your frequent Paris visits, I did think about you occasionally when reading Paris Trance, although I am sure you are far more purpose-directed than any of the characters in that book.


  11. Jonathan Birch Says:

    Glad to see you starting a blog. It’s much more than “Just another weblog” — change that default subheading! 🙂


  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Welcome, Jonathan. I thought about changing the default subheading and then decided, what the heck, if they put all the hardware and software in place (and they do), don’t they deserve a spot somewhere? You can always ignore it.




  13. Steph Says:

    John Self just told me about your blog so I’ve added you to my favourites, having enjoyed your comments to date on various other blogs I regularly read. Congratulations on launching your own blog, I look forward to reading it! All best Steph (a fellow Canadian)


  14. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Steph: Thanks for stopping by and I hope the blog rewards future visits. One of my annual projects is running A Shadow Giller Prize competition (based on the premise that if you want to criticize the real winner you have to make your choice known first). Since the real jury included Colm Toibin, we felt we should have an international member as well and, from comments on the Man Booker site, recruited Max Bridgewater who works for Bloomsbury — he’s the guy who kindly provided a proof copy of the McCabe for me. I’ve also read The Winter Vault and Burnt Shadows and will be posting on them closer to their release dates. Cheers, Kevin


  15. Cornflower Says:

    Thankyou for that most interesting post, Kevin; I’m just about to read the book!


  16. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks for the kind words Cornflower and welcome to the blog. Hope you drop by and comment often. And that you enjoy this book.


  17. Colette Jones Says:

    Hi Kevin,

    I love the comment from your wife. That is very funny.

    I’m about a third of the way through this book and enjoying it immensely. I thought I’d check your blog entry because I wasn’t sure I was getting some of it. It turns out I was, thankfully. Even though I was brought up Catholic, I have never understood the strength of feeling of Protestant v Catholic that seems to be the case in Ireland and Scotland. I guess there’s a big difference between those countries and a little town in Iowa. Anyway, it is intriguing!


  18. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Colette: I don’t think it is a difficult book — you just take it as it comes, although there are parts (like the Protestant-Catholic conflict) that get a little opaque. They did make sense on a second reading if you have the time. One of the things about this book is that despite its straightforward approach, it wants to be read a second time. And if you think McCabe is confusing to someone in Iowa, imagine how confusing we in the rest of the world find Gilead and Home. Mid-western America has religious trials beyond our scope — or at least beyond my scope.


  19. Colette Jones Says:

    I think I’d better read Gilead and Home then! Would you recommend an order or does it matter not?


  20. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I haven’t read Gilead, so I did read the second book first. From what I have seen of the reviews (especially DGR and Trevor who both liked it) I’d say reading Gilead first is a good idea — I did find in Home that some of the context of the events (although there are not many) was missing. Not really Robinson’s fault since I read the books out of order.


  21. Colette Jones Says:

    I didn’t actually realize the stories were related, so I’ll read Gilead first.

    I loved The Holy City and hope it makes the Booker list. I’m reading The Great Lover by Jill Dawson at the moment, another contender probably. Personally, I don’t like it as much as The Holy City, but the judges probably will like it, if it is submitted.


  22. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Colette: Could you post again when you have finished The Great Lover? Everything about the description of the book says that it would be a waste of time for me; all of the impressions from people I respect that I have read say that it is very good. I’m thinking I may have to overcome my first impression and would appreciate your thoughts.


  23. Colette Jones Says:

    I finished The Great Lover this morning. I’m a bit mixed about it. I think I like it because it is a fictionalized account of a famous person, but probably wouldn’t like it much if it weren’t. It’s just not the kind of story I am drawn to, i.e. people pining away for each other.


  24. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Hetre’s my question, Colette. I’m not a poetry person so while I know Brooke, I don’t care a lot about him — which decreases my interest in this book. On the other hand, readers whom I respect say it is very good. Given my negative impression going in, would you recommend I read it or give it a pass? I certainly respect your opinion.


  25. Colette Jones Says:

    I am not into poetry at all either and didn’t know much about, or care much about, Brooke going in. I liked it enough to recommend it, so I’d say you should give it a go.


  26. Colette Jones Says:

    Hi again. I read Gilead. I don’t see anything particularly Iowan in that religious narrator and the stories he told. Just Protestant, basically. I didn’t like the book much, and not sure I’ll bother with Home. I suppose I’ll give it a try.

    Next to Gilead, The Great Lover is a fantastic read and I highly recommend it!


  27. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I’ll admit, Colette, that, for some of us Iowan, (you can substitute Albertan, Manitoban or Dakotan in there), mid-West and Protestant come down to pretty much the same thing on the religious front (definitely no insult intended). I’m pretty sure if you didn’t like Gilead you certainly would not like Home (and I haven’t even read the former). I think we have to accept that there are some very good authors that for some reason or another some of us just don’t like. I’ll give Robinsion one more go with Housekeeping but I admit that it is the high opinion of other readers that I respect which causes me to do that.


  28. Colette Jones Says:

    I left Iowa in 1981 so definitely would not take offense! I have been back to visit on occasion.

    My dislike of Gilead is not because of the religion, but because it was too drawn out and perhaps too subtle. I usually like “subtle” but some stories need to be told and I didn’t think enough was done with John Ames’ father and grandfather – the author expected us all to know about the Iowans and the Missourians in the Civil War. I wasn’t keen on history when I was a young Iowan. I shouldn’t have to go to Wikipedia to figure out what the father and grandfather’s conflict was about – I should have been able to get it from Robinson. I think you have a similar problem with the religious side of things, which I found easier to understand.


  29. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I had the same problem with Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Crossing that you had with Gilead — it some historical background is essential to the story, then it seems to me it is up to the author to indicate it (and a lot of good ones certainly do). Having to go search it out does annoy me — if I am going off to another publication, why wouldn’t I just read another book?

    End of rant.


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