Books: Kung fu king of Ireland

Mondo Desperado by Patrick McCabe Picador pounds 10
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W hat would you say about a man who wanders into the god-fearing Irish town of Barntrosna, sits up at the bar and starts telling tall stories about local girls seduced into sado-masochistic lesbian flings, student priests blown to smithereens with a foot-pump and - under everyone's nose - a fraternity of swingers going at it "hammer and tongs"? And what if I told you that the same man was Patrick McCabe, twice shortlisted for the Booker Prize and with a reputation as a literary troublemaker?

You'd say he was acting the big fellow. And you'd be damn right. For Mondo Desperado, with its cod narrator Phildy Hackball, its reviews already written by the author and enclosed for our convenience, and its cast of the sassiest creatures ever to set foot in an Irish town, is Patrick McCabe's latest assault on the catechism of common decency. If anyone thought that the Bunyans were the picture of holy matrimony, then they haven't heard McCabe on Cora's nocturnal gyrations at the Go-Go Lounge. And if Declan Coyningham - cornered by "Fish-hook" O'Halloran and his gang of juvenile delinquents and charged with the crime of being the saintliest boy in town - seriously expected his humble protestations of innocence to meet with a reprieve, then it only goes to show that he's been reading the wrong books. "And I suppose," says Fish-hook by way of reply, "the next thing you'll be trying to tell us is that you don't deserve to be blown up."

McCabe proceeds to chew up all the received ingredients of Irish story- telling and spit them out at his leisure. Rooted in sleepy little Barntrosna these characters may be, but the nine stories of Mondo Desperado show them all on the move: acting out dreams and aspirations, showing off airs and graces, indulging themselves in comic fantasies. Dympna Wrigley relives her departure from an ailing, nagging mother ("Who's goanta look after me!") for a more bracing existence on the streets of Dublin. Noreen Tiernan adjusts to life under the thumb of a lesbian dominatrix, cheerfully taking her beatings and answering to the vile sobriquets of her foul-mouthed mistress: "Lappy Lugs", "Bucket Feet" and "Bog-face". And J J Parkes, pompous university graduate and incorrigible blatherer, invents an elaborate fantasy to explain why a man of his superior stock came to be saddled with a name like John Joe.

McCabe locates Barntrosna on an intersection between rural Ireland and the rest of the world, and watches the attempts of its residents to thumb a lift. The stories in this collection are loosely dated to a time after "the arrival of colour television and the first drug addicts", when the radiant holiness of young Declan Coyningham - before he got blown up - seemed to shine "as if in some other-worldly Weetabix advertisement". In "My Friend Bruce Lee", the local oddball takes new pride in the knowledge that he's on first name terms with the king of kung-fu, unaware that the Bruce Lee of his acquaintance doubles as a waiter in the Red Lotus restaurant and oblivious to the jibes of sceptics in the Bridge Bar ("One chicken curry and a pancake roll, Helmet-head ... good man yourself"). Even the parish priest, bored with the endless round of venial sins in a place like Barntrosna, gets to dream of the bigger fish to be landed in the metropolis: murderers, devil women and "wild-eyed fellows with their insides ravaged by Aids".

The only real malice in this book is reserved for the novelist Pats Donaghy who, temporarily resident in a Dublin housing estate, finds himself overhearing the riotous tribulations of the O'Hare family. "DON'T FUKKIN' TELL ME WHAT TO DO! JA HEAR ME, RIGH'?" says Da, ducking a salvo of soggy chips and burgers thrown by Ma and loyally flanked by his four pit-bull terriers Elvis, Norman Bates, Pancho and Hitler. Language which Pats - who still sleeps with his mammy - wouldn't ordinarily find in his vocabulary, but which he doesn't mind borrowing for his feted expose of urban squalor, Back of a Lorry. Set against this vulgar Punch and Judy, the carefully articulated transgressions of the residents of Barntrosna look reasonable. And freed from the deadening genuflections of lesser writers in the face of something so grave as an issue, Mondo Desperado emerges as a place where everything and everyone is still up for grabs.

There is nothing in these stories to match the emotional force of McCabe's The Butcher Boy, and none of the ambitious engagement with Northern Irish politics which framed his Breakfast on Pluto. Mondo Desperado is mellower and less angry than those books, but it confirms McCabe as a satirist of the highest order, aggressively asserting the right of the author and his subjects to personal reaction. Occasionally it looks as if he's just coasting: hanging about on street-corners like so many of his characters and picking on random passers-by. But even watching McCabe throw his weight about is powerful stuff. Mondo Desperado charts his enduring affair with modern Ireland: laughing with it, mimicking all its mannerisms and then, like Noreen Tiernan's irascible lover, pausing to kick it up the arse and shout "Bog-face".