Lessons in cold fate

THE DEAD SCHOOL by Patrick McCabe, Picador pounds 14.99
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The Independent Culture
WITH this novel, Patrick McCabe establishes himself as the leading contemporary exponent of the "I never nursed a dear gazelle but it was sure to die" school of literary endeavour. In retrospect, the symptoms were all present in his much-acclaimed The Butcher Boy. The protagonist, Francis Brady, was the only child of a half-crazy mother and drunk father who then died (the mother by her own hand), leaving him all alone in the world. When his best friend turns against him, what can the poor wee thing do but kill and disembowel the woman he believes has caused all this?

The reason for that book's success, despite this crudely melodramatic scenario, lay in its pace and momentum and, above all, in McCabe's unerring control of Francie's voice: a compelling amalgam of naive observation, juvenile mockery, hurt reticence, slithery cunning and terrifying outbursts of rage. And if he occasionally allowed himself such passages as "All the beautiful things of the world are lies. They count for nothing in the end" - well, that was the whole point, wasn't it? Francis's repressed emotions, whether vicious or sentimental, were unmediated, excessive and extreme.

The new book describes the twinned vicissitudes of two Irish schoolmasters of different generations, Raphael Bell and Malachy Dudgeon. It also features a narrator with a very different, urbanely patronising, voice. Nevertheless, we are not long left in any doubt that this is indeed the real McCabe: by page 46, the body count stands at four, all of whom have died tragically. Both Raphael and Malachy enjoy idyllic childhoods in rural Ireland, but then "the icy hand of fate deals a cruel and untimely blow to their lives". Raphael's father is brutally murdered by the Black and Tans, while Malachy's drowns himself on discovering that his wife is unfaithful.

Things then appear to improve, although the authorial voice, replete with arch reformulations and ironic exclamation marks, makes it clear that anyone who believes that is living in a fool's paradise. Raphael goes on to become a teacher dedicated to instilling into his young charges the ideals for which his father died, and is appointed principal of a prestigious Dublin school. Shy with women, he nevertheless courts and marries the lovely Nessa Conroy. Malachy also finds love, despite his childhood vow to shun it following his father's suicide, in the arms of Marion, a sparky, sexy girl with whom he shares a passion for American popular culture.

But it can't last, of course. And it doesn't. No, indeed. Because fate now returns for the second round of personal disasters, and the rest is history. Quite literally, for in chronicling the descent of his heroes (the gender is important - all the women are mere appendages) into alcoholism, drug-addiction, madness and death, McCabe implicitly suggests that the attempt of Joyce's Stephen to awaken from that nightmare is doomed from the get-go. But his project is fatally undermined by authorial string- pulling and a vein of mawkish victimology which, in one of those double standards which do discredit to both sides, no British writer would get away with for a moment.

The problem is that McCabe doesn't want to explore the ways in which human beings actually cope with adversity. He can't afford to let his characters change or grow, because he has invested too much in the grand guignol effects of looking on while they are broken by the icy hand of fate. McCabe's narrative craft are trim and swift, and he pilots them with skill and aplomb, but they float upon a body of crude, uncharted sentimentality as deep and wide as the Irish Sea.