Back to the ould sod

THE Stray Sod Country is a metaphor, a fable which the characters of Patrick McCabe’s new novel continually fall back on. It describes being lost in what were once reassuring surroundings, being intimidated or deceived by the very things that used to make you feel secure. It is a way of explaining things, “frightening emotions, things like depression or extreme loneliness”.

As such, the novel serves to tie up the small-town and supernatural elements of McCabe’s recent fiction, which may not be a bad thing as, in places, The Stray Sod Country feels like McCabe-by-numbers.

In particular, the stage Irishness and gombeen quality of the characters is disappointing from a writer of his calibre.

This time around it is 1958. Laika the dog has just been launched into space and Manchester United’s airplane is about to crash in Munich.

In the town of Cullymore, Fr Augustus Hand is engaged in a one-sided feud with a distant ‘Hollywood priest’, Golly Murray frets over the snobbish jabs of the patronising Blossom Foster, while James Aloysius Riley, former classics master, has become either a deluded malcontent or an agent of Satan.

It is rich material, and that’s before one gets to the police informer, the evangelical schoolteacher, the teddy boy, or the dedicated racer of champion pigeons, all of them introduced in rapid-fire succession as an emigrant returns from London with Brylcreem in his hair, a young man joins the IRA, the Redemptorists roll through town in a polished black sedan and the Legion of Mary call on Nikita Khrushchev to admit the error of his ways.

A lot happens in The Stray Sod Country, but there is little in the way of a plot. The novel swings from one quaint melodrama to another but never coheres in a way that satisfies the expectations of McCabe’s comical, horrifying best.

Indeed, the novel lacks energy and purpose, which is a terrible thing to find oneself saying about a writer you admire.

Born into a poorly schooled but highly educated family in Co Monaghan in 1955, McCabe worked for a time as a teacher, an experience that not only inspired his terrific 1994 novel, The Dead School, but also allowed him time to pen The Butcher Boy, that fiendish, borderlands Catcher in the Rye which won McCabe the first of two Booker nominations some 18 years ago.

Along with Breakfast on Pluto, it was later filmed by his friend and collaborator Neil Jordan.

Variously described as a stone cold original, the king of bog-gothic, and the Rolling Stones of Irish fiction (to Roddy Doyle’s Beatles), McCabe sees his writing as a kind of “social fantastic”, his mad, damaged characters a prism through which the feelings of society are reflected.

However, since the blood-spattered, day-glow heydays of the 1990s, the reception of McCabe’s curious fiction has cooled. Emerald Germs of Ireland (1999) was drubbed heavily on publication while Call me the Breeze (2003) remains, in McCabe’s own words, a novel ‘no one has bloody read’.

In the short form, the author marked the turn of the century with a mostly overlooked collection, Mondo Desperado (2001). At times hilarious, the book was motivated by McCabe’s dismay at the state of Irish short stories, “crippled by the weight of their own austerity”. Though po-faced and so-called “serious” tales arguably remain the house style of the nation, McCabe’s fiction – alongside that of his near-contemporary Mike McCormack – has opened the door for a new generation of Irish writers concerned with more than just Dublin, or high art, or funerals in the rain.

Yet where McCabe’s earlier protagonists lived in imaginary worlds pieced together from comic books and pop music, the good Irishmen and women of The Stray Sod Country reject such modern impositions. As such, reality is their fantasy. They wander from mass to confraternities to football matches like wide-eyed pod-people: “In Cullymore we’re all the same! This is a great little community, so it is!”

Caricatures not characters, one learns a lot of biographical information about the town’s inhabitants but one never has a feeling of who they really are.

The narrator too is problematic. Part succubus, part Mephistopheles, and with a Greek god’s penchant for impersonating morals, Cullymore’s inhabitants are only ever tangentially aware of his presence.

They refer to him by many names, from The Fetch of local legend to William Blake’s Nobodaddy to the plain old devil. For his part, the narrator styles himself “the inscrutable director of souls and motivation”, though beyond a few idle flirtations and a mad fit or two, he displays little in the way of follow-through.

One would have imagined the Devil to be a good fit for McCabe’s trademark mischievousness but the expected savagery never materialises the way it did in, say, Winterwood (2006), a vile fairytale about the rot at the heart of a peasant class abruptly metamorphosed into a moneyed bourgeois nation. That book provided a prophetic analysis of Celtic Tiger Ireland while the point of this novel is nostalgia.

It has most to say about tight-knit, small-town communities – the notional opposite of Stray Sod Country – and, of course, a world in inevitable decline. Flash forwards to the 1970s and the present day depict modernity’s effects on this way of life, but these are further aberrations in a novel that already teeters on the edge of plotlessness. Though a prodigious, ingenious talent, McCabe’s latest is a frustrating read.

Dr Val Nolan lectures in contemporary literature at NUI Galway.

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