Reviewing a masterpiece is a tall order.
Not only by the mere fact that stating that a book is a masterpiece, but then having to try and explain it to a vaguely interested third party.
Well, here we go.
Set in the early 1960's, The Butcher Boy is the tale of Francie Brady, a young boy becoming a teenager. Despite his home life being a nightmare with an abusive, alcoholic father and a depressed, suicidal mother who bears the brunt of the abuse, Francie has his friend Joe and their hideaway by the river. Here, they fantasise about winning a "...million billion trillion dollars...", tell fish to fuck off and have the time of their lives.
Things take a turn for the worst when the Nugents move back to the town from England. After a childish prank goes wrong, Mrs. Nugent berates the Bradys by accusing them of being nothing but pigs. Francie takes this to heart, with tragic and horrendous consequences.
First published in 1992, Patrick McCabe showed himself to be one of Ireland's most brilliant writers with this, his fourth novel. Combining the ambiguity of Samuel Beckett with the stream of conscience narrative of Joyce (with a little Bret Easton Ellis thrown in), The Butcher Boy is a heartbreakingly funny, devastatingly sad read of a young boy whose life spirals out of control while others watch.
Within the first five pages, the scene is set and the major themes are introduced. The famous opening line of "When I was a young lad twenty or thirty or forty years ago..." not only flags up that this is a storyteller who might have trouble telling the truth, but is also reminiscent of the kind of folk tales told by people of a certain age to their grandchildren. Hence, memory becomes a weapon. It carries the pain and misery on to a new generation.
We see how Francie (inadvertently) longs to escape his abusive surroundings, but this is contrasted by his guilt over his mother's suicide. By believing that he'd let her down the way his father did, he resigns himself to a vicious circle of abuse passed on from father to son. The reader can see it a mile off, but the fact that Francie either doesn't (or chooses not to acknowledge it) makes it all the more heart wrenching.
Although not commented upon much at the time, retrospective pieces have focused on the sex abuse carried out on Francie. Julie Parsons has written that, at the time:
...we seemed to know little about the horrors of the industrial schools, the Magdalene laundries, the widespread abuse of children by Church and State...But the story of Francie is the story of those who suffered.
Here is an example of McCabe tapping into a trait of Irish people around this time; to view those who were a tad 'off the rails' (so to speak) as "never being the same since they were in that home." By making such a statement, we pretend to be sympathetic to the plight of the individual. But we also acknowledge that there was something in that "home" that has driven them to such behaviour.
Hear nothing, see nothing, say nothing.
Much has been made of the idea that the novel is a commentary on Ireland's neo-colonial status. Tim Gauthier from the University of Nevada has written about how:
The struggles of Francie Brady...invoke both neo-colonial Ireland's anguished residual relationship with the colonizer and its search for nationhood. Francie's ambivalent relationship with the community, his search for identity, his lack of a sense of history combined with an idealization of the past, his fascination with the life led by the Nugents as adopters and representatives of dominant culture values, and finally his own self-loathing all mirror the country's neo-colonial condition. McCabe's novel, in effect, attempts to stretch neo-colonial discourse to its limits, calling into question both notions of nationhood and cultural hybridity.
Certainly, with the book being set at the beginning of the 1960's, a time where the whole world was preparing itself for nuclear war and Ireland was beginning to attract foreign investors, it was a great time of change. Although I can see what Gauthier is arguing, I feel that simply reducing the book to such terms does it a great injustice as it means the reader views the text through a more historical angle, rather than an emotional one.
Both Rajko Petković and Vesna Ukić Košta I would tend to agree with when they mention how:
It is significant that all the while he is looking towards contemporary popular culture for some sort of role models, Francie turns his back to traditional Irish culture and, needless to say, totally defies and mocks one of the defining elements of Irish national identity, Catholicism...The family, that untouchable and sacred unit heavily fostered by the Catholic Church, and Catholic institutions that should have at least put in more effort to substitute his own family have failed him many times. It is no wonder therefore that Francie both literally and metaphorically kills the symbolic forms of Catholicism so as to destroy links with every notion of drab Irish life that has brought him nothing but misery...It can be therefore argued the narrator and the inmate of the institution for the criminally insane, where he is eventually incarcerated for life and from where he narrates his astounding story, totally defies Eamon de Valera’s utopian image of Ireland. Yearning for the life that this vision naively promised but realizing that he would always remain an outsider to it, Francie resorts to insanity and crime which seem to offer him the only escape.
A seemingly simple tale of adolescence gone wrong, The Butcher Boy captures an Ireland that is both long gone and still residing in the shadows.
Patrick McCabe, 1992, The Butcher Boy. Picador ISBN-13: 978-1447275169
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland.