Book Of A Lifetime: The Butcher Boy, By Patrick McCabe
Friday 15 July 2011
I had never heard of 'The Butcher Boy' until about seven or eight years ago, as I was beginning my first novel. An Irish friend of mine read some of my early pages and suggested that I might enjoy the book, that it might inspire me. He was right – I enjoyed it massively – but rather than inspire me. I initially found myself inhibited by it.
I could see that I was trying for similar things to those which the novel achieves – the total absorption into a disordered mind; the blurring of the real and the imagined; the madness and chicanery of the small town, to name a few – but if that book exists and does all those things better than I possibly could then how, I wondered for a time, could I go forward? This feeling didn't stay with me for long, though. After a pause, and the realisation that what I was doing was different enough not to be treading on its toes, I ended up learning, and finding great encouragement, from it. Ultimately, I think, good books, the ones that live with you and never fully go away, always end up inspiring you.
The most impressive thing for me, still, is the novel's achievement of placing you right inside the warped reality of Francie Brady's mind while at the same time allowing you a complete awareness of what is going on outside of his delusion and ignorance. "When I got into the kitchen who's there only ma standing there and a chair sideways on the table. What's that doing up there ma I says it was fuse wire belonging to da just dangling but she didn't say what it was doing there she was just stood there picking at her nail and going to say something and then not saying it."
Even though we only have Francie's oddball worldview for company, the book still manages to embed us in the politics of a small community and its struggle with mortality, played against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis. That is not an easy thing to do well. Nor is creating a terrible compassion for the narrator even as he shocks and revolts us.
There are plenty of novels that contrive to do a similar thing. The idea feels familiar, as does that of the troublesome outsider, the juvenile first-person narrator, the use of language to create a distinct voice. But nothing else I have ever read does these things with the conviction and force of 'The Butcher Boy'. Pat McCabe said of writing it that "It didn't matter if it wasn't published. Just write the real story and I swear to God I thought nobody would read it. I didn't make that many concessions to the reader. It just sweeps along."
Pretty good advice that – not just to a first-time writer as I was, but to any writer, I'd say.
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