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Patrick, on ‘Pluto’: Gender-bending protagonist punctures Irish complacency

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

Novelist Patrick McCabe’s connection to popular music is very nearly visceral. Two of his five novels, "Music on Clinton Street," his first, and now "Breakfast on Pluto," his most recent book, have taken their names from song titles of hits of a few decades past, and the author himself was once a member of an American-style rock band playing around Ireland.

Just how much music is in McCabe, evident to anyone even superficially familiar with his work, is unavoidable when he stands before a crowd to read from one or another of his books.

The link was electric one night recently when the writer, in town to promote "Breakfast on Pluto," whose title derives from a Don Partridge song which rode the British charts in 1969, shared a Soho stage with singer Jack Lukeman, reading a bit of his book with amazing musicality, and then standing aside to make way for a number by the young Irish vocalist and song writer, an artist who appears to owe more than a casual debt to Van Morrison.

The venue was Fez, a low-ceilinged club on Lafayette Street, and Pat McCabe seemed so involved with Lukeman’s music that he appeared almost reluctant to take center stage and read. Almost but not quite, and when he read selected bits and pieces from his new book, it was with an even greater sense of the music inherent in his words than had been the case a night earlier, when he read to a capacity crowd at NYU’s Ireland House.

To anyone who had previously encountered McCabe, or even seen him in the small, peripheral role of the town drunk in the vibrant movie Neil Jordan made from his third novel, "The Butcher Boy," just two years ago, the author might appear to be something of a chameleon, almost startlingly so.

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When he was in New York a year or so ago, in the interests of his fourth book, "The Dead School," McCabe in no way resembled the image in the photos handed out by his publisher, much less the bearded image on the dust jacket of the novel itself. In that case, he had simply shaved the bushy black beard he sported in his photographs, but the alteration was striking, as though he had moved back in time 15 years or more.

This time, commanding the performance platform at Fez, his scarlet suspenders over his mustard-colored work shirt, he appeared almost to be a different person entirely. He had dropped something like 42 pounds since he last crossed the Atlantic, and the result was that he had taken on the appearance of the small child he must have been growing up in the border town of Clones, Co. Monaghan, where he was born in 1955.

Now, edging toward his 44th birthday, McCabe admits he finds things, in some ways, not entirely to his liking, and he despairs of what he regards as "the homogenization of the world continuing apace, with Hard Rock Cafe and Planet Hollywood everywhere. Ireland has become very like America," he said.

"On the other hand," he said, "you know prosperity’s not such a bad thing, and, besides, I’m not a crusader. You do what you can do, and if that in some way punctures the complacency or the sterility of what we might be perceiving, that’ll be enough for me."

Pushing the envelope

Never one to play it safe, McCabe has really pushed the envelope with "Breakfast on Pluto," in which Patrick "Pussy" Braden, a 16-year-old transvestite, stands in for modern Ireland as the author sees it.

"You know how Ireland is always being referred to as a woman," he said, perched on a couch in the lobby of his hotel on his recent New York trip. "Sometimes it’s the Old Woman, and sometimes it’s the Aisling, or the Dark Rosaleen, or Cathleen Ni Houlihan. Pussy Braden is my equivalent of that sort of thing."

It would be difficult to come up with an idea more acutely calculated to puncture Irish complacency than reconfiguring the country’s image as a resolutely apolitical gender bender.

McCabe can’t isolate the moment "Breakfast on Pluto" took shape in his mind, but he knows it didn’t germinate as the result of anything he saw, or something somebody told him. "It was more in the way of a mood, maybe, and that came from the song, ‘Breakfast on Pluto,’ and that was a jaunty, lyrical, almost childish sort of thing," he said.

The writer knows that the title of his new book is unlikely to ring any bells in the memories of Americans, even those with an interest in pop music of "swinging London" of the ’70s, which is the principal time and place of "Breakfast on Pluto."

"There’s a long queue of people stretching all the way to Milwaukee who never heard of the song," he said. Everybody had been onto me to write a happy book, and they’d tell me how fed up they were with my miserable melancholia and so on."

If "Breakfast on Pluto" isn’t precisely the "happy book" McCabe was requested to write, he had no apologies. "You can’t work against yourself," he said. "You have to go wherever the wind takes you."

McCabe started out to write a book with a female child at its center, but, as he wrote, the work changed shape. "So when the kid reached adolescence in 1971 or 1972, I realized it wasn’t about a girl at all," he said. "That was the first reversal. When that happens, all you can do is relax and let it go where it wants to. It started to fan out in about a dozen different directions. One of them was Belfast, another was London, another was Dublin, another camp, and another still a kind of darkness."

The novelist maintains that all of the directions are in the book as it exists, and that it stands as "a many-headed kind of Hydra." He said he feels he made only an intellectual decision. "I chose brevity," he said. "I decided that brevity was everything, I wanted a short book about a big story." As it stands, "Breakfast on Pluto" runs to just 202 pages and is made up of 56 chapters, many of them exceedingly short, with a few of them containing just a single paragraph of a hundred words or fewer. "To do it that way took a bit of courage on my part," McCabe reflected, "because it’s really a very complicated story, full of flash-forwards and flashbacks, and I think it makes demands on the reader that the other books don’t. I could imagine people putting it down and saying, "I don’t get it.’ I was prepared to take that risk."

Perpetual bridesmaid

To date, there haven’t been any complaints, or, if there have, they haven’t reached McCabe. Like "The butcher Boy," "Breakfast on Pluto" was short-listed for Britain’s coveted Booker Prize, and, like the earlier book, it didn’t win.

"The first time, I lost to ‘The English Patient,’" he said, "and this time, it was ‘Amsterdam.’ I’m destined never to win. I’m always the bridesmaid, but I don’t worry too much about prizes."

McCabe spent a number of years in London, working as a teacher in what Americans call "special education." Fairly recently, he and his family moved back to Ireland, settling in Sligo, to which they had no real previous connection.

"It was neutral ground," he said, by way of education. "I’m moving ever further westward. The next thing you hear of me, I’ll be back in New York."

McCabe has a persistent streak. He’s never given up on a book, even when "Breakfast on Pluto" changed radically as he was writing it. "I felt like it once or twice," he admitted. "Usually what that is is a turning point, and then something else is delivered to you. It’s like the moment when a general decides to advance or retreat. You might win the war by advancing, and there’s nothing to be gained by retreating. I suppose there’s such a thing as a tactical retreat. Maybe some things are meant to be abandoned and are meant to be done years later, when they’ve fermented. I can understand it happening to people, but I’ve been lucky in that respect. It’s such an ethereal kind of thing, the muse, or whatever you choose to call it."

The Monaghan-born author has been lucky in more ways than one. Like "The Butcher Boy," "Breakfast on Pluto" has been bought for the movies, and by director Jordan, the same man who made McCabe’s earlier film.

"He nearly bit the hand off me to get it," the writer said, with evident pleasure.

"The Dead School," the book that came between "The Butcher Boy" and "Breakfast on Pluto," on the other hand, didn’t get so much as a nibble from the movie people, Jordan included. "He wasn’t interested," the novelist said, "not remotely." The fact that that particular book didn’t make it to the screen doesn’t seem to bother its author.

"I don’t think it’d make a movie," he said, putting paid to the topic.

Superficially, "Breakfast on Pluto" might appear to present problems in terms of casting the central role. McCabe is unfazed. "I think it’ll be a hell of a lot easier to find a 16-year-old Irish transvestite than it would be to find a 13-year-old who could act a murderer."

The reference, of course, is to the long search director Jordan and McCabe, who wrote the screenplay for "The Butcher Boy," made before they settled on Eamon Owens, the boy who played Francie Brady in the film.

"Those three years," he said, "between 13 and 16, are among the most important years in terms of maturity. I’m not worrying too much about that."

McCabe has no doubt that he and his director will find the perfect actor to play Pussy Braden, a lonely lad from the border village of Tyreelin, a boy with a fondness for frocks who finds himself in London with IRA bombs exploding all around him.

For the moment, however, Patrick McCabe is embarking on a 6-month writer-in-residence stint at University College Galway. It’s a new venture for him, but instinct tells him he’ll like the experience.

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