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.”