Books: Heartbreak hotels

In Ireland, the flies on the wall have taken to fiction. Carol Rumens looks at documentary-style portraits of a land of loners and dreamers; Mondo Desperado by Patrick McCabe Picador, pounds 10, 230pp; The International by Glenn Patterson Anchor, pounds 9.99, 318pp
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The Independent Culture
TWO VERY different new works of Irish fiction - Patrick McCabe's collection of short stories and Glenn Patterson's novel - have one thing in common. That is the influence of the documentary. McCabe's title draws attention to its source in the Sixties Italian "Mondo" series: phoney documentaries full of jump-cuts, quotes from other movies and tangles of fact and fiction. The collection is further "framed" by an invented author, Phildy Hackball, heralded by "A Note from the Publisher," spoof blurbs, etc. These frankly rather hackneyed devices seem superfluous to the better stories, while not making up for the lameness of others.

"My Friend Bruce Lee" is one that stands out. The hapless narrator, "Helmet- Head", is gulled by his pals into believing the Kung Fu star wants to come and visit him (Chinese take-aways are duly ordered). Refusing all subsequent hints that his visitor was in fact a waiter from the Red Lotus Temple restaurant in Mullingar, the fan is fooled into donating regular sums to an acting school for the street kids of Hong Kong.

This is vintage McCabe, situated in his characteristic mondo desperado of the convincingly deranged. It is not essentially an Irish story, of course, but like the others it is "set" in Barntrosna, a spoof-village "on an intersection between rural Ireland and the rest of the world". Such territory is well written up by now: Flann O'Brien, after all, was there first. A newer target for McCabe is the sentimentalised inner-city. In "The Big Prize" a Barntrosna novelist, Pats Donaghy, finds himself temporarily living in Roddy Doyle-land, next door to a family of 14 tearaways and their pitbulls. "Howya, Bukes! I'll buke your bleedin' bollix in!" is the estate's characteristic greeting to the great author.

Mondo Desperado certainly has its moments: the dialogue, as above, is fun stuff, but the mannered narrative style is a repeated joke that proves wearing. Maybe "Hackball" is to blame, because no one is better than McCabe at suggesting the vulnerability, the sheer pathos, of the evil-doer, while making his readers curl up with wicked laughter.

This collection needed an editor to put a question mark against stories of the "Hot Nights at the Go-Go Lounge" variety, in which McCabe seems interested only in sending up a genre, and those such as "The Bursted Priest" where his wonderful satirical talent teeters into pointless farce.

Unlike the brutally unreliable story-tellers all over Mondo Desperado, Glenn Patterson's narrator, Danny, looks back with dry, intelligent dispassion on a day in his life as an 18-year-old barman at Belfast's grandest hotel (since demolished), The International. Its characters are fictional but their time and place are incontestably "real". The single day on which the action takes place is in January 1967, the eve of the inaugural meeting of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association.

This coincidence seems rather obviously designed to evoke a sense of "never such innocence again". The narrative cuts between the stories of various characters in the Blue Bar that day - crooked business contractors, newlyweds, American tourists out to spice up their sex lives, a Sunderland football star on sick-leave - but its central strand concerns Danny's own indecisive "coming of age" as he falls in love with two people: Ingrid, betrayed girlfriend of the groom, and Stanley, a gifted but unsuccessful puppeteer.

The episodes are rich and suggestive, with minor characters such as the Master (the boss) and the night porter memorably sketched. Danny's young man's story is satisfyingly fleshed out but, as to how his mature life has evolved, the question fades in the novel's final pages. As the tying of fictional ends gives way to documentary, it's as if the historical imperative had become a moral one, and imagination had necessarily to secede to real tragedy. It's a sad conclusion for a novelist to reach, and one that the novel, at its most effective, surely calls into question.