Things fall apart

THE DEAD SCHOOL Patrick McCabe Picador pounds 14.99

Laurence Sterne believed the novel is like a conversation, a series of propositions and disclosures that invite agreement, questioning and denial. Patrick McCabe clearly believes this too; but in his case, the conversation is so militantly one-sided as to render the reader speechless. No modern author offers a fictional voice so slangily verbose, so buttonholingly in-your-face.

In The Butcher Boy, his Booker-shortlisted third novel, the narrator was a swaggering, pig-obsessed social reject called Francie Brady, who wreaked havoc with an Anglo-Irish family while telling his story through a farrago of minatory cliches. In The Dead School, a scornful but emotionally null observer describes two blighted lives in similar tones, veering between an off-and-away, sunny enthusiasm, and a colder, grimmer note that seems to invite tragedy, the two strains combining to form a kind of hearty heartlessness.

The story concerns two men, Raphael Bell and Malachy Dudgeon, born a generation apart in a changing Ireland, who suffer emotional tragedies in their childhoods, survive them to grow up sane and fulfilled, then gradually destroy each other. For Raphael, a child of the Troubles who sees his father shot by the Black and Tans, the engine of destruction is his passion for the past - for an idealised Ireland of old decencies, in which his father wins the reaping race, the IRA have principles about whom they kill, and sex is a pure and wholesome union for the procreation of children. In the Seventies, sagacious and heroic, he runs the most successful school in Dublin. But the times are a-changing and he is harried by free-thinkers. The new parents' committee rep talks of "non-competitive sport", and publicly argues in favour of abortion. A radio disc jockey called Terry Krash encourages discussions of underwear and promiscuity. It's typical of McCabe's mastery of idiom that you believe an ageing teacher might feel his world begin to crumble when he hears the word "bra" uttered on the airwaves.

Malachy is, by contrast, a feckless dreamer, his chronic inadequacy fuelled on "You-talkin'-to-me?" lines from Hollywood movies. He is abused by local toughs, he witnesses his mother having illicit sex in a boathouse, his father drowns. Unlike Raphael, he embraces the age of Aquarius, becomes a hippy, falls in love with a groovy chick and gets a job at Raphael's school.

There, as the older man fights off the modern world, Malachy fights the demons of his childhood, the ones that suggest he will naturally be "the biggest bollocks in town" like his dead, betrayed father. One of the book's many narrative shocks is to discover that the youths who drive the frenzied new recruit to homicidal dreams are just small children. A boy in his care falls into a pond and drowns. The beleaguered headmaster attacks a pupil. Forced into resignation, Raphael opens the Dead School at his home, its rooms full of empty bottles, stolen schoolbooks and maggoty pets. Malachy, sacked, hits a London squat, takes acid on a picnic and is admitted to a mental asylum where the past crowds in. . .

As things fall apart, correspondences emerge. Both men are mother-fixated, suspect their partners of betrayal, and signal their descent into insanity by a leery chuckling. Both associate love with a song, for Raphael "Macushla", for Malachy "Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep". By the end, they set out to kill one another, but only one dies. It's as if, though 40 years apart, they are driven along the same trajectory by a malevolent fate - though McCabe offers nothing as concrete as a deterministic philosophy.

The story moves along in tiny, two-page chapterettes, driven by an explosive, hyper-adrenalinated hectoring, full of for-God's-sake rationalisings and strikings of attitude. The narrator calls his characters names ("Mr Extremely Bruised Bubblehead"), laughs at their pretensions ("I mean just what was going on or who in the hell did Malachy think he was now, JackNicholson?") and describes their downfall with repellent glee. You may flinch at the piling-on of nostalgia and misery. But you can't ignore the bleak poetry of Patrick McCabe's claustrophobic modern Ireland where there are cobwebs in Our Lady's eyes, and the news is always bad. Flann O'Brien meets The Mayor of Casterbridge. A nasty triumph.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing