It ought to have been happy

“Poguemahone” is the anglicized form of the Gaelic phrasepóg mo thóin, meaning “kiss my ass”. Choosing it as the title of his latest book may be Patrick McCabe’s way of pre-empting his critics although, with fourteen other books to his name and a solid reputation, he surely has little left to prove.

Thirty years ago McCabe’s fourth novel, The Butcher Boy (1992), shot him to literary fame. As the foundational text of the “bog gothic” genre, this tale of a schoolboy in small-town 1960s Ireland who retreats into a world of fantasy was, and remains, hugely influential. Since then, the occasional highlight aside, the author’s star has waned: The Big Yaro (2019), the sequel to The Butcher Boyfailed to excite much interest.

McCabe has admirably continued to take risks throughout his career, and this has secured him a loyal following, not only in Ireland. Around 500 supporters are behind the crowdfunding of Poguemaone, which marks another daring departure. It is a bleakly comic, wildly original 600-page epic about loss, exile and mental illness, written almost entirely in lightly punctuated free verse. The narrator is Dan Fogarty, an Irishman living in present-day “Killiburn” (Kilburn) in north London. All the Fogarty family’s tribulations stem, we learn, from a moment in the middle of the last century when they were evicted from their home village of Currabawn. This is familiar McCabe terrain: exile, trauma and the lifelong anguish associated with

something which ought
to have been so happy,
uncomplicated and simple
ending up bitter & filled
with disagreements
recriminations which have pursued
right down, even,
to this very day.

In a recent review of Homesickness by Colin Barrett, Anne Enright noted that a long-standing theme in Irish writing is “how men in particular deal with the hurt of dispossession”, hinting that this well-worked seam may by now be exhausted. But McCabe’s novel is also, and dramatically, about possessionin the diabolical sense.

Poguemaone is the author’s first novel to be set outside Ireland, and it ranges unchronologically from the London Blitz to the present day. It is largely about one woman, Dan’s sister Una, who is seventy and lives in a Margate care home, in the grip of dementia and other mental health problems. Dan relates Una’s fading memories of her life in the 1970s, all of which center on the “Mahavishnu Temple”, a squalid Kilburn squat shared by a cohort of “ne’er-do-wells and floppy-hatted / wastrels” and a malign mythical creature known as a gruagach. These memories, as recounted by Dan, are by turns hilarious and quite terrifying, moving fluently between the comic grotesqueries of Withnail and I and the ontological horror of The Exorcist.

Una’s housemates include her Scottish lover, a terrible aspiring poet called Troy McClory, and her memories of their brief affair seem to be at the root of her present-day mental malaise. The scuzzy energies and hectic behavior of the period are persuasively rendered – all the sex, dope and booze, the prog rock and gigs at Dingwalls and the Roundhouse in Camden, the ramshackle “happenings” at Putney Arts Centre. These are occasionally interrupted by flash-forwards to the protagonists in later life – ageing, washed up and unwell. The chaotic freedoms and excesses of the era are overshadowed by the misfortune that blights the Fogarty clan, and by implication the dispossessed Irish. McCabe’s novel teems with dreams, nightmares, hallucinations and traumatic memories, taking in Gaelic folklore (notably the Children of Lir myth), anti-Irish racism, political unrest, social divisions and the IRA’s mainland bombing campaigns. There are multiple and sometimes obsessively repetitive references to the backwaters of pop culture – the protean impressionist Mike Yarwood haunts the narrative as a light-entertainment equivalent to the gruagach. Una’s ruins are shored by such humdrum fragments.

With an average of just three or four words per line, things rattle along briskly:

But, anyway,
where was I
yes, the pub up in London
The Bedford Arms
wasn’t I telling you
where, to my surprise,
on my recent journey
up Killiburn way
instead of Paddy Conway
who did I discover
standing there in behind
the counter
only this brand-new Nigerian barman
who you wouldn’t have
expected, in a million years.
to know the slightest little bit
clurichauns or
or anything to do
with the old tales and stories
of Currabawn,
or, for that matter, Ireland …

My initial reaction was equivocal because, on a first reading, this lacks the punch and depth of poetry. But compare the same extract presented as straight prose: “But, anyway, where was I yes, the pub up in London The Bedford Arms wasn’t I telling you where, to my surprise, on my recent journey up Killiburn way instead of Paddy Conway who did I discover standing there in behind the counter only this brand-new Nigerian barman…”. This doesn’t work half as well, lacking the garrulous buoyancy of the original, and setting it out as prose makes it clear how artfully the material has been handled. Poguemaone is, in content and execution, frequently astonishing, and galloping through a very long novel at the rate of three pages per minute is an exhilarating sensory experience. The first half in particular is marvelously fresh and underwrought. As things darken there are fewer laughs, and the final pages are almost unbearably tense.

There are irritations. After every Gaelic word or phrase (and there are many), we are immediately given the English translation, though in many cases the meaning can be inferred from the context. And the many cultural references to the 1970s are jarringly glossed within the text – so a one-off mention of Nico elicits her identification as “the legendary singer / & chanteuse from Lou / Reed’s Velvet Underground”. Not only is this unnecessary, it is inconsistent with Una’s voice. McCabe’s eye for period detail – or, rather, Una’s – is, given her fragile mental condition and the doubly destabilizing device of Dan’s status as her mediator, appropriately erratic, partial and repetitive. An unreliable narrator from the start, Dan becomes ambiguous as the book unfolds and Una’s dementia turns out to be a component of even more troubling. No spoilers here, but I suspect most readers will cotton on long before the actual (and nevertheless horrifying) reveal.

With a few exceptions, the novel in the verse doesn’t have much appeal to today’s mainstream publishers, and this is not only because verse novels are often awful, but also because even the good ones rarely find a large audience. One can only hope Poguemaone attracts a readership beyond its crowdfunding backers on Unbound because, in its haunting strangeness and blazing originality, it deserves far more than a cult following.

David Collardorganizes and hosts The Glue Factory, a weekly online gathering. His bookMultiple Joyce: 100 short essays about James Joyce’s cultural legacywill appear next month

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