The Holy City, By Patrick McCabe

Sardonic psychosis strains for effect in swinging small-town Ireland
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The Independent Culture

It is hard to know what to make of The Holy City, with its scrambled time sequence, its orotund impersonation of an unreliable self-aggrandiser (the narrator) and its allusions to cryptic contretemps such as "the Beachcomber affair" at a Butlins camp. It is the story of Chris J McCool, a 67-year-old 1960s enthusiast, whose glory days appear to have passed in a blur of soupy pop music, ardent infatuations and half-baked obsessions.

McCool's unholy goings-on are located in the archetypal backward Irish town of Cullymore, in which the 1960s is experienced as a kind of meteoric bombardment. The reader is also bombarded, to the point of exasperation, with brands and period icons: Roger Moore, Max Factor, Alma Cogan, Carnaby Street, Kim Novak, Lulu, Peter Stuyvesant, Green Shield stamps. There is evidence that the narrator has confused the 1960s with the 1950s. Ruby Murray was not, in 1969, a singer "who could do no wrong in the UK charts", nor did cream cotton gloves – "the hallmark of a lady" – and handbags loom large in fashion shows.

Behind the would-be eloquent tones of Patrick McCabe's narrator, it is possible to detect the sardonic tones of an author engaged in an eccentric appraisal of the mores of the day. McCool believes himself to be the illegitimate offspring of fragrant Lady Thornton of the local manor, and a burly Catholic accountant named Stanislaus Carberry. His off-beam conception, the opposite of immaculate, facilitates a lot of polarisation. Protestant refinement versus Catholic vulgarity, Protestant order versus Catholic shambles – these and other stereotypes fill McCool's mind in his teenage search for identity.

Before this, the misbegotten infant is relegated to a rural farmhouse and the care of an old body, Wee Dimpie – Dympna – McCool, graduating to the status of an egg deliverer, and eventually to notability in Cullymore. Along the way, he gets entangled with an Alma Cogan/Ruby Murray clone, "a Protestant lady from the north"; and idolises a local half-Nigerian boy, Marcus Otoyo, with dire consequences.

It becomes clear that McCool has spent a lot of his life in an asylum, and manifestations of madness are all over the narrative. Sometimes funny and astute, The Holy City is overwhelmed in the end by a mood of faux jollity and mental dislocation, making it tiresome when it isn't unnerving.