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In ‘Mondo Desperado,’ McCabe jettisons ‘dark’ storytelling style

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

Patrick McCabe rates as one of the best readers in the ranks of living Irish writers, a skill he demonstrates every time he returns to New York in the interests of a new book.

A year ago, he was in town publicizing "Breakfast on Pluto," at which time he appeared at Fez, a subterranean cafe on Lafayette Street, reading passages from the book in alternation with musical numbers performed by a singer and guitarist he admires, Jack L.

On his most recent visit, promoting his current book, the antic "Mondo Desperado," he was by himself, reading brilliantly at the Irish Arts Center on West 51st Street.

"I’d have brought Jack," he said without a hint of rancor, "but he’s become so popular that I can’t afford him anymore."

Music, particularly American pop music of the 1950s and ’60s, is key to everything McCabe writes, but he’s perfectly fine on his own. In fact, he’s astonishing, making his own distinct variety of verbal music.

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At the Irish Arts Center, "Mondo Desperado" was the issue at hand, with a pyramid of copies of the novel occupying a prime position on a table in the middle of the theater’s lobby, awaiting the casual well-attended reception that followed the author’s reading on the stage.

Dressed with uncharacteristic formality in a tweedy three-piece suit, McCabe read uninterrupted for 85 minutes, leaving his hushed audience hungering for more.

For this occasion, McCabe chose to perform a wide-ranging program drawn from at least four of his novels, including a beautifully rendered opening selection from "Carn," his first published work. He closed with several brief lifts from "Mondo Desperado," which the author and his publisher, HarperCollins, describe as "a serial novel," but which is really a collection of 10 stories, written in a selection of parodistic styles, and supposedly the work of a writer named Phildy Hackball. The book is set in the fictional Irish town of Barnstrosna.

McCabe, slight in stature and quick and agile of movement, could give lessons to writers preparing to read from their works. He speaks brilliantly, clearly, and evocatively, in addition to which he is not afraid of silence. Many times at the Irish Arts Center, he dropped his voice to make a point, and looked out intently at his near-capacity audience as they leaned forward in their seats, eager not to let a single word escape them.

He had clearly learned much of his material, only really seemed to be reading at rare moments. Most of the time, those penetrating eyes were focused on the audience.

"I’ve always been very interested in style and I was thinking in terms of some kind of a conflation between the pulp thrillers of the ’50s, and the early ‘Mondo’ movies," McCabe had said earlier in an interview. " ‘Mondo Cane’ was the big one, but there were thousands of imitations, like ‘Mondo Bizarro,’ ‘Mondo Pazzo,’ ‘Mondo Mod,’ ‘Mondo’ everything. So it was a notion I had of playing about with style, like, you know, the G.K. Chesterton or H.G. Wells sort of prolix kind of style, where the story begins in the gentlemen’s club, like ‘The Monkey’s Paw,’ maybe, that Victorian kind of thing."

McCabe had in mind, as befits his own wry style, something significantly different.

"In my case, I was hoping that as the gentleman, sitting there in his tweeds, sipping his double brandy and smoking his Cuban cigar, started out, you’d realize he was really going to tell you a story involving a six-headed monster," he said. "If there’s anything the stories in this book have in common, it’s this impish take on Victorian prose, I suppose, but it gets its inspiration from all those ‘Mondo’ movies, which may or may not have been true. A lot of that footage was faked, as things turned out."

McCabe considers the people in the stories that make up "Mondo Desperado" to be genuine, recognizable examples of human types.

"I’m not saying that I knew them," he said, "or even that they are based on specific individuals I heard about, but, hopefully, the stories are about real people, and the people in them will come across as being made of flesh and blood. At least, they’ll come across as archetypes. That’s what I want to have happen anyway."

The writer traces the origins of "Mondo Desperado" to a pulp magazine he happened to buy.

"Leafing through it," he said, "I came upon the original art work for ‘Mondo Cane,’ which I’d seen, and which I shouldn’t have seen at age 10. It was an ‘over 18’ sort of situation, but I had managed to see it, three or four times, in fact. And I got to thinking it’d be nice to do a ‘Mondo’ expose on a small Irish town. That’s what turned the key in the lock."

McCabe wrote "Mondo Desperado," as he puts it, "in tandem" with "Breakfast on Pluto." In "Pluto," McCabe created a teenage transvestite on the loose in London. The character, in the author’s mind, represented present-day Ireland. It was the most difficult of his books, he said, to write, while "The Butcher Boy," he recalls, was vastly easier.

"It just roared out of me," he said. "Once you get the key right, you can just soar."

One form of literary endeavor that McCabe says doesn’t allow him to go airborne so readily is the screenplay. He wrote the script for "The Butcher Boy," with Neil Jordan, and he’s currently coming up with a screenplay for "Breakfast on Pluto." This time, the process isn’t proving easy.

"Film scripts are about architecture," McCabe said. "All the time, you’re thinking about the audience and how to manipulate them. Film is a manipulative medium in a way that fiction isn’t. Writing fiction, the music will carry the audience along. You can bring them on a long, elliptical journey, and they’ll still go with you if the music is right. but you can’t do that in film. You can’t take an audience on an extraneous kind of journey in a movie, because they’ll get bored."

Like most writers, McCabe admits that there is a therapeutic aspect to his work, and he can isolate the nature of it in "Mondo Desperado."

"After doing three books that were dark, tenebrous kind of novels, I wanted to move into something that had some density, but was lighter in tone," he said. "Being a full-time, professional writer for seven years now, living with a lot of heavy stuff on my head, it becomes a burden, so I thought, ‘Let’s just loosen it a bit now, and go for a bit of fun.’ And that’s what I did. Or at least that’s what I intended to do."

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