By Joseph Hurley
MONDO DESPERADO, by Patrick McCabe. HarperCollins. 240 pp. $24.
"Mondo Desperado" presents itself as "a serial novel" by one Phildy Hackball, who turns out to be a creation of Patrick McCabe, author of "The Butcher Boy" and "Breakfast on Pluto."
McCabe created a small, remote town, Barntrosna, where he’s set all 10 stories in the book, which are written as parodies of other literary forms.
Without being overly sober about it, it could be said that "Mondo Desperado" bears a similarity in intention and construction to Sherwood Anderson’s "Winesburg, Ohio," in that it exposes some of the ironies and grotesqueries existing just under the surface of life in a seemingly ordinary small town, the difference being that McCabe’s goals are humorous, while Anderson was nothing if not deadly serious. McCabe’s authorial tongue is firmly and deeply planted in his cheek from start to finish in "Mondo Desperado," and it’s fiendishly difficult to maintain such an unswervingly satirical viewpoint.
The narrator of the opening story, "Hot Nights at the Go-Go Lounge," convinces himself that his wife is living a double life, simply because a friend, attempting to play a joke, has told him she is. In "I Ordained the Devil," a priest-narrator makes himself believe that a rival cleric is really Satan in disguise. In "My Friend Bruce Lee," another self-deluding narrator, something of a specialty with McCabe, believes that the deceased Hong Kong action star has come to his apartment and shared a Chinese meal with him.
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The titular figure of "The Boils of Thomas Gully," plagued by an unsightly eruption in the center of his forehead, encounters an attractive woman in a pub, and, thinking she’s unbothered by his appearance, takes her home, only to find the following morning that she has robbed him.
An element of writerly cruelty seeps into this story, as it does in several of the others, making the reader begin to suspect that McCabe might be having his fun at the expense of his characters.
"The Luck of Dympna Wrigley" concerns itself with a village woman who, having deserted her needful mother, becomes a prostitute and somehow manages to find a man who will make her life a dream.
The final story, "The Forbidden Love of Noreen Tiernan," is almost 70 pages. It tells the story of a seemingly selfless nurse who leaves the village, goes to London and becomes a dangerous criminal. When her boyfriend and members of her family find her, she meekly reverts to the docile Barntrosna girl she had been in the past.
"Mondo Desperado" is a volume not ideally ingested in great gulps, since the characters, if encountered in clusters, tend to become both thin and artificial, and the stories themselves work better with a bit of breathing space between them.
McCabe, one of Ireland’s best and, normally, most compassionate writers, clearly had fun writing this book, which he wanted to create using the bright colors he remembers from the "shockumentary" films of his boyhood, "Mondo Cane," and, even worse, the deeply racist "Africa Addio," among others.
Those films were marked by corrupt, evil intentions, while McCabe’s objectives are as pranksterish as they are innocent, although once in a while, when he appears to be throwing darts at his bizarre and unfortunate characters, he’s operating at something less than what might be called his ideal and personal best. Still, if approached in the right frame of mind, "Mondo Desperado" can be seen as harmless amusement.