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Book Review From sanity to madness and back again

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

BREAKFAST ON PLUTO, by Patrick McCabe, Harper Collins. 202 pp. $22

Wherever he is at the moment, Patrick "Pussy" Braden must be in deep mourning, wearing black, something stylish, but definitely a chic frock, and a large hat, with a heavy veil.

"Pussy" Braden, the teenage transvestite hero of Patrick McCabe’s fifth novel, "Breakfast on Pluto," was a great fan of Dusty Springfield, and the singer, a Londoner whose name was actually Mary O’Brien, died last week.

So fond of Springfield was "Pussy" that he delighted in getting into drag and lip-synching to her recordings, miming songs like "You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me" and "Son of a Preacher Man," and sometimes "I Only Want To Be With You."

"Pussy" Braden, born in the village of Tyreelin, in the Irish Free State about a half-mile from the border with the North, came into the world when the local priest raped a young girl and then forced her to flee the country.

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Young Braden, placed in a foster home where there were girls, soon developed an enduring interest in his "sisters’" clothing, a fascination, in fact, which would shape his life. The tropism he feels for slipping into woman’s clothing, is the principal magnet which drew him to the charms of the "swinging London" of the 1970s.

He journeys across the Irish channel in search of his "Sergeant Rock, or Captain Yum Yum Be-My-Girl-For-Ever!"

As anyone familiar with McCabe’s third book, "The Butcher Boy," or the excellent but somewhat neglected film Neil Jordan made from it, knows, the author is an expert when it comes to tracing the course of immature minds in the process of disintegrating.

Francie Brady, the 13-year-old hero of "The Butcher Boy," descended into sheer madness as we watched in horror. "Pussy" is some three or four years older, and his tale is essentially a comic one, although it is certainly not free of pain and sorrow.

McCabe’s new book functions on several levels, one of them being a personal history "Pussy" writes for his psychiatrist during a time in his life when his sanity is very definitely a now-and-then thing.

There is irony in the fact that "Breakfast on Pluto" has made its appearance at a moment when glam rock, or glitter rock, if you prefer, is making something of a comeback, due to the release of films such as the recent "Velvet Goldmine," based precisely in the years when "Pussy" Braden was exploring London in search of his destiny.

That time was dead center in the period of the heaviest IRA bombings, although the strife plaguing Ireland and England was of little importance to the boy from Tyreelin. "Thirteen people had been shot dead by British Army paratroopers," "Pussy" says at one point, "but I sat in the darkened square, shamefully not thinking about the dead victims or their relatives, but what combinations of my precious goodies I should go and try on first!"

If that weren’t enough, "Pussy" considers Irish Republicanism "trivial," and admits openly that he is "much too preoccupied with my own personal revolution to be bothered."

At one point, he shrieks, "It’s Bombing Night and I haven’t got a thing to wear!"

Patrick McCabe spent eight years teaching learning-disabled children and young adults in London’s heavily Irish Kilburn, which he gleefully refers to as County Kilburn, and his experiences there must almost certainly impacted heavily on both "The Butcher Boy" and "Breakfast on Pluto."

Some of the encounters McCabe’s hero has in London are decidedly dark and dangerous. One gentleman, whom "Pussy" refers to as "Silks," was intent on throttling him, nearly succeeding. "Pussy" is endlessly understanding, even after being attacked.

"When I look back on it," he reflects, "I really have to hand it to Silks. To listen to him, you would have thought he was the sort of person who started drenching the place with tears anytime anything remotely upsetting came on the cinema screen, for whom the abuse of a dumb animal was a tragedy of awesome proportions."

Thinking about the attempted strangulation, "Pussy" adds: "Just because you get a kick out of strangling people doesn’t mean that another side of you can’t be humane and kind and sensitive — perhaps even morose, indeed."

Just as Francie Brady directed his hostility in the direction of his snobby neighbor, Mrs. Nugent, "Pussy" targets his hatred on his priest-father. He longs to return to Tyreelin and, slipping into the confessional, confronting the wrongdoer with a simple "Hello, Daddy."

Novelist McCabe’s eccentric hero, intensely fond of ice-cream-pink mohair sweaters, is bound to alienate some of the book’s potential public, especially as the author insists that "Pussy" represents today’s Ireland, much in the way that W.B. Yeats’s Cathleen Ni Houlihan did in another era.

"Breakfast on Pluto," whose title derives from a long-forgotten pop tune by Don Partridge, is a brief but complicated novel, slipping in and out of reality much as "Pussy" himself moves from sanity to madness and back again.

The book moves freely and gracefully between humor and tragedy, and the secret of its considerable success clearly lies in the skill and grace with which the rather elfin author from Clones, Co. Monaghan, manipulate his materials.

"Breakfast on Pluto" is a deft, unique novel that will almost certainly provide Neil Jordan with the stuff of which fine movies are made, particularly with Patrick McCabe providing the screenplay.

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