Call Me the Breeze by Patrick McCabe

Too many pies and too much LSD? Then you're an unreliable narrator
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Joey Tallon, the manic, desperate and ultimately tragicomic narrator of Call Me the Breeze, is a figure that will be familiar to readers of McCabe's past fiction. Like Francie Brady of The Butcher Boy or Paddy Braden of Breakfast on Pluto, Joey has a distinctly shaky take on reality. He thus makes for a profoundly unreliable narrator whose garbled, often delusional version of events is not to be taken at face value. One of the chief challenges of this ambitious, complex, bracing work is reconstructing the underlying actuality of the events Joey recounts. That some questions remain unresolved, the novel tells us, is not so much a result of the failures of the narrator, but more a function of the limitations of representation itself. There are some stories, it seems, which can never be satisfactorily told.

The novel opens in 1976 and finds Joey working in a bar, eating too many pies, taking too much LSD, and living in a caravan at the edge of town. He is an enthusiastic reader of Herman Hesse and Carlos Casteneda, a fan of Charlie Manson, Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle, and his friend's proto-punk band The Mohawks. Joey is an emblematic figure of the times when the optimistic "alternative" philosophies of the hippies had soured and were about to be superseded by the bleaker, aggressive posturing of the punks. But Joey, a resident of an archetypal border town, has more to deal with than the contending cross-currents of popular culture. The Troubles are at their peak, and he soon finds himself caught up with the sordid atrocities of the times, including the murder of an English salesman, a bomb attack on a border patrol, and the killing of an Irish policemen investigating the activities of the Provisional IRA.

Already unstable, Joey, a borderline figure in a borderline town, retreats further from brutalities of the time into a private dream world informed by mysticism, drugs and the psychological desires he unconsciously nurtures. Fixated on the figure of Jacy, a beautiful young girl who has recently arrived in town, Joey, in a confused attempt to "liberate" her from the clutches of Boyle Henry, businessman, local councillor and IRA killer, kidnaps her and holds her hostage in a nearby shack. It is a course of action that inevitably ends in disaster. Joey loses an eye, is arrested and receives a long sentence in jail.

Call Me the Breeze is McCabe's most complex novel in terms of structure. It is an amalgamation of fragments Joey has jotted down and collected over the years, including diaries, film treatments, differing styles of fiction. Once out of prison, where a sympathetic governor has encouraged Joey's nascent artistic impulses, he embraces the creative life in full, attending writing classes, teaching at a local college, shooting short films with students. But Joey's attempts to realise his story end in failure: he can never adequately locate the precise form in which to express what he wishes to say. The truth is too powerful, too potent, too difficult to capture.

It is difficult not to read Call Me the Breeze as a complex allegory about the relationship between the artist, truth, history and the method in which art takes form. Like McCabe's past outings, it is a bitter and blackly comic work full of despairing compassion for its subject and the grotesque circumstances of his life. But there is a final, bitter twist for the artist manqué Joey Tallon: frightened out of town by the sinister cabal which committed the crimes of the past, Joey, a shambling, overweight Cyclops, goes into hiding where he finally succeeds in committing his story to paper. His novel, The Amazing Adventures of Blobby McStink (aka Doughboy McBlob), meets a fate worse than rejection: it is embraced by the English reading public, not for the self-hating cri de coeur it is, but rather because it is viewed as an exemplary piece of Irish whimsy. It is a detail which certainly made the laughter die on my lips as I completed this multifaceted, challenging work. In his latest novel McCabe has fashioned a profound and hallucinatory meditation on the social, political and personal ramifications of the creation and the reception of art.